Heavy Season Predicted for Holiday Mailings

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The first and bulkiest books in what is expected to be a crowded holiday catalog season have started hitting homes.


Big books from the country's top three consumer catalogers -- JCPenney, Fingerhut and Spiegel -- include hundreds of pages of the season's expected hot sellers and are designed to be kept by customers for the duration of the season.


While the big books may be among the first, they are most likely leading a large pack, as early indications show that mailings will be heavy.


"I just know that the printers I've spoken to have been booked solid, and I'm assuming what gets printed gets in the mail," said Bill Dean, president of catalog consultancy W.A. Dean & Associates, San Francisco.


Dean noted a jump in prospecting before the January postal increase may be one of the factors contributing to large mailings this season. In addition, although the stock market has fluctuated in recent weeks, catalogers planned for the season during the first seven months of the year when the economy was strong. Dean doubted, however, that the recent market volatility would cause Christmas woes for catalogers.


"From what I've read, the past few weeks have not had a major effect on consumer confidence," he said.


JCPenney, Plano, TX, which calls its 644-page book "America's Largest Gift Catalog," began mailing Aug. 28. The company would not release how many copies were mailed but identified several anticipated hot sellers for the season. Apparel-wise, the company has billed this year as the year of the sweater.


"Sweaters are what our buyers have been seeing when they go to the shows -- sweaters of all shapes, sizes and colors," said spokeswoman Stephanie Brown.


The company also predicts that a renewed popularity of 1970's era merchandise will spark strong sales of lava lamps, bean-bag chairs and platform shoes.


Meanwhile, the retailer/cataloger, which carries only small amounts of toys in its department stores, emphasizes toys in its holiday catalog. Merchandise from the popular "Rugrats" and "Teletubbies" television shows, and walking and talking "Sesame Street" character dolls in celebration of that show's 30th anniversary are among the featured toy section items. A four-car set of Hot Wheels and new Barbie accessories and collectible editions also are expected to be popular.


Fingerhut, Minnetonka, MN, will feature two new interactive dolls that are expected to generate excitement. Amazing Amy and Furby measure a child's voice, then respond when the child has stopped talking.


"It's an exciting new technology that wasn't available," said Wade Mattson, manager of big book marketing. "It incorporates a traditional toy doll or plush animal with new technology."


The catalog, which is close to 600 pages, an increase from last year when it was in the low 500s, began mailing last week and will continue to be mailed through October. Its mailing size and timing are similar to last year, and it will reach more than 4 million customers.


Other featured Fingerhut items include a Yerfdog go-cart that has sold well in the company's spring catalogs, DVD technology, a Sony camcorder that can record in the dark, video games and monogrammed products.


Spiegel's mailings began last week, slightly later than last year. The Downers Grove, IL-based company's big book is smaller than it was last year -- 310 pages as compared to last year's 360 -- mainly because of the company's restructuring along lifestyle lines last year.


"While this remains a key book for us, there are other books that will give customers lifestyle choices throughout the season," said Debbie Koopman, divisional vice president of corporate and investor relations.


Spiegel has emphasized monogramming in its holiday book, with monogramming and personalization now available on clothing, glasses, clocks, paperweights, even dog gifts.


"As the world becomes more blended, people want things with a hand crafted feel," said company spokeswoman Mary Jeanne Ward.


Meanwhile, apparel made from chenille and velvet is expected to be popular. Chenille products will be found in the bedding section as well.


Finally, in an effort to respond to a lifestyle trend, several spreads of candles of all shapes and sizes will be offered in the catalog, including aromatherapy candles.


"It's for a spirituality lifestyle," Ward said. "People increasingly want to create a sanctuary in their own homes."
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