Catalogers See Immediate Drop in Sales

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Catalogers around the nation felt the impact of this week's terrorist attacks in the days after the obliteration of the World Trade Center in New York City and the devastation of the Pentagon just outside Washington.


Lillian Vernon Corp., Rye, NY, experienced a 58 percent drop in phone orders while Web orders fell 51 percent on Sept. 11 -- the day of the attacks -- compared with order projections that are based on catalogs in the mail. The falloffs were 30 percent and 35 percent, respectively, the day after.


"It's impossible for us to project [when the numbers will return to normal] due to the fact that we don't know if there will be more terrorism and what the response from the government will be," said David Hochberg, Lillian Vernon's vice president of public affairs.


The shipping of goods, however, apparently experienced minimal impact. Also through yesterday, no orders had been canceled.


"This time of year we're not in a holiday mode, and only 4 percent of orders are shipped by air," he said. "Everything else goes out by ground."


"I was glued to the TV until 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday and 11 p.m. on Wednesday," he said. "There is saturation coverage and people want to know what's going on, but a lot of people are stressed out, and shopping is a distraction. My theory is that with the saturation coverage, some people are going to say, 'I need a break' "


Lillian Vernon's customer database of 24 million includes 46,000 people who live in Manhattan south of 14th Street, a main east-west thoroughfare about 2 miles north of the World Trade Center. The company will suppress its next mailing to that segment of its database.


Spokeswoman Stephanie Brown reported "minimal disruption" to the catalog business at J.C. Penney Co., Plano, TX, which ships a majority of its products via UPS Ground.


Beverly Holmes, a spokeswoman with Lands' End, Dodgeville, WI, said her company ships 97 percent of its deliveries via UPS' Ground service. The company's Web site informed visitors that "due to the devastating events of the week and the resulting disruption of domestic air transport schedules, some deliveries may be delayed."


The company's call volume was down about 75 percent on Sept. 11.


"But it's coming back each day," she said. "We know from the [space shuttle] Challenger and Oklahoma City [explosions] and the Gulf War that these trends took place in which people focused on events for a day or two or three and we're seeing a similar trend. Call volume was up on Wednesday, and it's up further [Thursday]."


Holmes also said it's too early to tell if the sales lost during the days following the attack will be made up in the future.


"People were allowed to leave, and they were paid for the day," Holmes said. "We had about 100 people on the phones through the end of Tuesday. That was enough to handle the volume, and we had a full staff back on Wednesday."


The company's usual complement is 1,000 spread over three shifts in call centers in Dodgeville as well as the Wisconsin locations of Reedsberg, Cross Plains and Stevens Point.


Dell's site informed visitors that the computer maker "is prepared to expeditiously respond with all available resources to any emergency requests related to these events. Dell will expedite the building, shipping and support of any Dell product or service needed. These orders will have top priority at Dell."


Smaller catalogers were also affected.


"Tuesday, we were 58 percent off overall, which includes a drop of 55 percent in terms of phone orders and 68 percent in online orders, compared to the company's sales forecasts," said Dan Nuthals, general manager of Big Toe Sports, Madison, WI, a soccer specialty cataloger. "On Wednesday we were off 49 percent overall, which included 48 percent on the phone and 55 percent on the Web. Thursday looked like we would be 33 percent off.


"I really think our rebound is going to be tied to the military response. In the short term, the severity of the response will engulf people's attention. If they are busy watching the news on TV, they are not placing an order. I think 90 percent of our orders that would have taken place during the day of the attack and the days following it are lost.


"We have a high degree of impulse buying, and the impulse is gone," Nuthals said. "The kids are not doing after-school activities as much. I think until the general public gets a better understanding of whether it's a small response or World War II."


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