Too Soon to Gauge Effect, Catalogers Say

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For many mailers, it's simply too soon to know how the anthrax scare will affect response rates, so they're sticking to their guns and hoping for the best.

"It's important in the direct mail industry not to overreact," said Michael Sullivan, vice president of marketing at packing, wrapping and shipping supplies cataloger Chiswick Inc., Sudbury, MA. "Let's say I cut my mail, and there's been no impact on response. I'm taking first-time buyers out of my business who have a five- or 10-year impact on the profitability of my business."

Chiswick drops 10 million books a year and is not deviating from the fourth-quarter mailing plan it had in place before anthrax was an issue, he said.

"If I don't mail anyone, I don't get any buyers," Sullivan said. "If I mail everyone and get a 10 percent decrease in response, maybe I don't get as good a return on investment, but at least I've got something going back in the pool."

Though mailers know that anthrax anxieties have made some well-known creative techniques unadvisable, it's too late to change some campaigns that use them. Tag and label business-to-business cataloger Seton Identification Products is sending out a solo mailer that uses two once-typical response drivers that are now questionable: It includes samples and looks like a First-Class mail piece.

"It does have some samples in it, but they're very flat," said David Giroux, director of marketing at Seton, Branford, CT. "The bigger concern is that the envelope is designed to look like a First-Class mailing. We had tested it against very promotional-looking packs, and this is our control. With that one, we're too far in, and we couldn't do anything with it."

Seton sends more than 1 million such solo mailers a year.

However, the company was able to change a coupon book it mails. It is introducing a third cell with different envelope treatments and some with no envelope.

On its catalogs, Seton's creative team plans to tout familiarity and trust on the next round of prospecting covers, slated to drop after the holidays. For example, they may emphasize that the company has been around for 45 years or include the Direct Marketing Association logo.

The 1-pound customer book, however, probably won't change much, Giroux said.

"These are folks that know us," he said. "We do custom ink-jetting on the front, back and on page 3 that speaks to customer history, so we think that will help people recognize that there is a history with this company."

Well-known consumer mailers are also banking on familiarity.

"The advantage for direct marketers like Lillian Vernon is that we have a well-known, established brand name, and we prominently put our name and logo on all of our boxes and bags so that the consumer knows where the package is coming from," said David Hochberg, vice president of public affairs at Lillian Vernon Corp., Rye, NY.

So far, Lillian Vernon's only change is the tape it uses to seal boxes.

"Presently, it's a generic, clear tape," Hochberg said. "We are shifting to a tape that is preprinted with our logo."

At Lands' End, Dodgeville, WI, the biggest change has been to the inbound mail system, spokeswoman Beverly Holmes said.

"What was set up is that we are pre-screening all mail coming into the company," she said. "We are following post office and government [regulations]. We are opening return boxes and looking at them before they go into our warehouse. We are inspecting the mail, closing it and putting something on it to tell us that it has been looked at."

The cataloger has not yet made any changes involving customer shipments.

"If you order online or over the phone, [the package] is handled by a number of Lands' End employees in our own warehouse, and none of that is outsourced," Holmes said.

The cataloger is getting only a few calls each day from consumers questioning delivery procedures "out of the 50,000 calls per day we receive," she said. "We address each of those customers one by one, and we [tell them that when their] package or box arrives, if they feel there is a puncture, or if the tape is loose, we will send out another item. That would be our normal procedure."

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