Great Companions Crows Over Format Change

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Less was more for Great Companions as the cataloger of bird products enjoyed a strong response to its spring catalogs despite featuring fewer products and pages than in past years.


The 40-page spring catalogs, which target owners of parrots and other exotic birds, dropped in February and March.


"The February catalog went out very strong and produced a 5.5 percent response rate," said Jason Mischel, owner of Six Star Marketing, Warren, MN, which publishes Great Companions. "The March catalog fell back to the mean response rate for our books, which has been in the 3s over the years. It was probably the creative being new that spurred the interest. It was enough to capture some attention."


Changes included fewer products per page -- seven this spring compared with 10 last year -- and an attempt to emphasize one product per page. The new look received a response rate for the first drop that was almost double the rate of a year ago.


"We wanted less clutter while trying to create a focus on one hero product that would receive more space on a page," he said. "The February mailing went beyond expectations. The only disappointment with the February mailing is that the first two weeks were phenomenal but then it tailed off very quickly, quicker than I thought it would."


Circulation remained constant with 30,000 copies of each book mailed. Sixty percent of recipients came from the company's house file. The per-piece cost fell from 65 cents a year ago to 60 cents.


Mischel is pleased with an average order of just above $70 that is consistent with last year.


"Cutting the number of pages made sense from a press configuration standpoint, and we also eliminated some underperforming products," he said. "As soon as the economy slows down, sales of cages, which range from $500 to $1,000, start to slow down."


Private-label feed received increased emphasis this spring, occupying pages 3 through 6. A 20-pound bag of Fruit & Nut Blast for Large Parrots sells for $79.95. A 15 percent price discount as well as a discount on shipping is provided to those who order 200 pounds of supplies from pages 3 through 15.


"I beat [local pet stores] on selection," he said. "[They] may have 10 to 15 bird toys. We have over 100 in our catalog. [They] may carry two or three brands of food. We have seven or eight. Food gives us our best profit margin. And when you start to talk about delivery of 25 or 50 pounds of food, which the consumer will have to lug out of their car and up the stairs, the shipping costs are not an issue. A lot of our customers own several birds."


The books' best-selling toys have included the CocoCreature and the Watermelon. They received prominent placement this year, and both sell for $19.95.


Great Companions buyers are about 80 percent female, primarily in suburban and rural areas.


"They own large, exotic, indoor birds that typically cost between $1,200 and $1,500," he said. "On day one they will spend $500 to $1,000 on a cage and accessories. Yearly expenses can amount to $300, including vet care."


About 70 percent of sales are generated via orders phoned in to the company, which has a two-person call center, while greatcompanions.com accounts for 15 percent of volume and the balance comes in via mail and fax.


"We did maybe about 12 percent of sales last year on the Web site," he said. "My impression is that I would have to spend more money than it's worth to get more sales online. We've found that for our customers calling is easier than using the Web."


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