Consumers Shift Holiday Buys to Later in Season

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Response rates for the 2003 holidays were decent for consumer catalogers despite a shift in consumer shopping toward late-season buying, list professionals said.


Yesterday's release of the Catalog Online Post-Holiday Co-Op Survey by Millard Group Inc. highlighted a change in buying behavior.


Of the 66,000 consumer respondents to the online survey, 85 percent said that they still were completing their holiday 2003 shopping during the two weeks prior to the holiday. Only 5 percent had finished their shopping before the end of November.


"Holiday was surprisingly weak for many mailers in September, October and November, then something that I've never seen happen before happened this year," said Mike Hayden, senior vice president of list brokerage at Millard Group, Peterborough, NH. "For some reason consumers collectively were putting off purchasing until very late in the season, and a huge amount of sales came in from the 5th to the 15th of December."


This trend occurred last year, he added, but was far more pronounced this year.


"One of my feelings is that we will continue to lose market share to the big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart," Hayden said. "Something needs to be done to counteract that but I don't know what that is right now."


Because of the late push, marketers that had catalogs in the mail later in the season fared better.


"Mailers that had a good deal of circulation in late November and early December time frames were able to capitalize on that this year and made back a lot of the softness late in the season," Hayden said. "In the end, many mailers were close to plan or 5 to 6 percent down but not as bad as we expected from early in the holiday season."


And mailers that had unique products and a fresh book did well throughout the season, he said.


Another list professional concurred with Millard's findings and Hayden's assessment of the late shopping season.


"It was a slow start to the holiday season but the business came roaring in during the last three weeks," said Steve Tamke, senior vice president at Mokrynski & Associates Inc., Hackensack, NJ. "Catalog/Web companies responded to the fact that consumers were buying later and put more of their promotions in the mail later."


By the end of the season 64 percent of the mailers in a Mokrynski client survey equaled or exceeded their prior-year performance, he said. Hard goods mailers did better than apparel mailers with 68 percent meeting or exceeding the prior year, but 57 percent of apparel mailers still met or exceeded their prior-year performance.


But in terms of meeting or beating plan for holiday 2003, only about half of mailers did so.


"They had relatively aggressive plans, so even though they beat last year they were not as successful in meeting their plans," Tamke said.


The late-season buying may have thrown mailers off plan.


"Some mailers may not have had stock on the items consumers wanted that late in the season," he said. "They may have been conservative in restocking based on the slow start to the season."


The Millard study also found that more than 80 percent of respondents said the receipt of a catalog drove them to the cataloger's Web sites to shop. In addition, free-shipping promotions were the most appealing to consumers, with 82 percent saying it drove them to a catalog Web site and 77 percent saying it drove them to the catalog.


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