List Executives Hope for Better End to Lackluster Year

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List professionals would like to say that the upcoming holiday mailing season will be the best in a long time, but most would settle for a modest upturn to finish what has been a dreadful year for many mailers.


Though everyone would love to see the boom times return, expectations have been adjusted, according to one list executive.


"I think people are more realistic about their expectations," said Mal McCluskey, CEO of List Services Corp., Bethel, CT. McCluskey will participate in a panel of list professionals to begin the Direct Marketing Association's List Vision 2003 conference tomorrow at the Marriott Marquis, New York.


But signs of potential for a decent fall/holiday mailing season are there, he added.


"I think a lot of people today back into their mail plans based upon list availability, and there's certainly more list universe this year than there was last year but we're not back up to those robust years where you had excess circulation," he said. "Today you still have to work hard to fill the circulation."


Based on spring and summer results, things appear to be generally flat to up slightly, according to another list professional.


"Spring and summer got progressively better month by month from June to July," said Dennis Bissig, group vice president, list brokerage at Mokrynski & Associates Inc., Hackensack, NJ. "It's still not good and nothing that would make us say, 'Aha, it's turned,' but it has gotten less bad."


Yet early fall results from July generally were disappointing, he said, though it is still very early for a good read.


A new reality may exist to which mailers will have to adjust in reading their results, he suggested.


"We can't expect the response that the house files were giving a few years ago," Bissig said. "Everything is down, and obviously outside list performance is down."


One list professional said there was some differentiation between offer types and results.


"I think it depends on the category and the type of mailer," said Rosemarie Montroy, executive vice president, Direct Media Inc., Greenwich, CT. "I mean, no one is burning barns but they are doing OK." Montroy will moderate the opening panel at List Vision.


Using data gathered by Catalog Tracker, Direct Media's competitive analysis tool for catalogers, Montroy gave a snapshot of how some mailers were faring.


In the mid-ticket-range general merchandise category, for which holiday is a big mailing season, a sampling of seven mailers had three increasing holiday circulation and four coming in flat.


Apparel and publishing were categories having a hard time, she said. However, a standout seemed to be home decor catalogs.


"The whole nesting environment is probably benefiting them," she said. "Most of the successful catalogs are not very high-ticket. It seems to reflect a more stable, home-oriented and not terribly frivolous market."


All agreed that mail plans have been conservative all year and will remain so through its end.


"I'm not seeing anybody going wild," said Fran Golub, senior vice president of list management at Walter Karl, a Donnelley Company, Pearl River, NY. "There's one or two that are mailing a little more but everybody else is pretty cautious. We're sort of in a holding pattern."


Still, there doesn't seem to be the same level of anxiety that had been prevalent in the past.


"I don't think anyone went into the year overly optimistic but I think people are on plan and hopeful about the fall," McCluskey said. "Consumer confidence seems to be up, unemployment is down a tad and barring any major catastrophes it should be a good fall."


Bissig said that by the end of September mailers would have a better feel for how the year will shake out.


"Maybe this holiday will be a turnaround," he said. "I would love to say that and I'd bet a quarter, but I'm not sure I'd bet a dollar. I think we're still holding our breath."


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