French Mail Order Businesses Look Abroad for Growth

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PARIS --- The French mail order industry has embarked on a global expansion kick at the same time as foreign direct marketers are taking a greater interest in France's DM potential.

Writing in the French DM newsletter "Catalogue's La Lettre," editor-in-chief Annie Rigoureau noted that foreign earnings of French mail order houses grew 25 percent from 1992 to 1997, from 11 billion francs ($2.2 billion) to 14 billion francs ($2.8 billion).

This year or next La Redoute, France's largest mail order house and Europe's third biggest, expects sales from its foreign operations alone to hit 15 billion francs (about $3 billion).

Granted much of La Redoute's higher sales are due to recent acquisitions - Ellos in Sweden last year and Brylane in the US this year with both companies expected to add heftily to La Redoute's bottom line.

But La Redoute is not alone. Mail order houses that were happily confined to the borders of what the French themselves call "La Hexagone," have moved abroad.

Bernard, active in Belgium and the UK, is looking for new foreign markets. Raja is moving beyond Belgium and the Netherlands to the UK where it is about to buy a local mail order house.

Office supply direct marketers JM.Bruneau and JPG are entering the Belgian market. Bruneau dropped its first catalog this fall with a French text and prices in Belgian francs. A Flemish catalog is due soon.

JPG, a subsidiary of Boise Cascade Office Products, has been active on that market a tad longer, beginning activities there during the course of the summer.

Foreign mail order houses are returning the favor. Two years ago - 1996 is the most recent year with reliable statistics - non-French catalogers earned 10 billion francs ($2 billion) in France.

Their sales are rising rapidly. Some ten German mail order houses are active on the French market and more are expected. Viking sales are at the $150 million mark. And, as Rigoureau points out, "US catalogers are under-represented in France."

That may change as La Redoute adopts a far more global approach. The company's new CEO, Hartmut Kraemer, a Harvard educated German executive, expects to double La Redoute's international activities in two years.

He is looking at several Brylane catalogs that may be suitable for the European or French markets. He is particularly interested in low priced fashion books and in Brylane's books for "large" men and women.

"Brylane has a real flair for both," Kraemer told La Lettre, "and is the global leader in fashion for large men and women." He contended, however, that Americans are fatter than Europeans by as much as 50 percent. He plans to test the catalogs in the UK next year and then in France.

A Swedish La Redoute catalog is in the works and should hit the mails in the 1998-99 season. "We've done a lot of PR in the Swedish press to generate interest in our catalogs."

Response has been twice as great as La Redoute expected for the 700 page book that features fashions for men, women and children. It is already the largest catalog in Sweden. Ellos' books ranged from 350 to 500 pages.

Plans for an American catalog are proceeding apace. Kraemer said he expects to have a La Redoute book adapted to American tastes ready for the fall of 1999. It will be limited to female fashion.

"We're also looking into the possibility of mailing some of our specialized catalogs to the US," he told La Lettre, but said that no decision had yet been reached.

Cracking the US market won't be easy, he noted, citing the more complex and more highly developed US list culture as both obstacle and opportunity.

Brylane mails new catalogs every three to four weeks with 40 percent new content, something La Redoute may not be able to match given the French lag in geomarketing and demographic overlays.

But La Redoute is not through its foreign acquisition phase. Kraemer noted that Ellos was already in Estonia and is conducting a test in Poland, and that his company would seize any new acquisition opportunity "in Germany or elsewhere."

Finally, La Poste is waking up to the revenue opportunities of the mail order business. Today some 20 percent of La Poste's turnover comes from that sector -- 10 billion francs (some $2 billion)

As Aime Perret, a top La Poste executive, noted, if the mail order business doubles or triples in France over the next few years "we can hope that La Poste's revenues will follow suit."

Belatedly La Poste is following the lead of the German, British and Dutch post offices in offering special assistance to foreign mail order companies - help in testing catalogs, in finding consultants and other DM services.

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