BBC Direct Grows Circ, Size of Book After Britannia Acquisition

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The BBC America Shop catalog has expanded this spring in every possible way.

Circulation has grown to 500,000 compared with 400,000 for the spring 2003 edition. The number of items available for the spring season is up from 175 a year ago to 550. Page count ballooned to 56 from 20 while the book's actual size expanded from last year's 10 1/2-by-6-inch slim-jim format to a 7 1/2-by-10 1/2-inch format.

Expansion came at a considerable price as the per-piece cost to produce and mail the catalog jumped 57 percent.

"It was justified since we have an almost 300 percent increase in the response rate that we're projecting for the spring [2004] catalog," said Allison Haberman, senior director of BBC Direct, New York, a division of BBC Worldwide Americas, also based in New York.

An acquisition last year put BBC Direct in a position this year to mail the most catalogs in its 2 1/2-year history. It incorporated names from former rival catalog Britannia, which it purchased in August from

"They had been in business for 17 years, and BBC Direct launched its first catalog in the fall of 2001," Haberman said. "We tested the Britannia name after the acquisition in September and October, and it was determined that the BBC America name outperformed the Britannia brand name. We thought it was a good fit with what we were doing. It allowed us to increase the size of the customer file."

Haberman said the company made the decision to go with a larger book so it would be "more in line with how Britannia had looked because of the number of their customers we are now targeting. We did away with the slim-jim format and increased the number of pages because we expanded well beyond the merchandise we offered."

The SKU total last year included 95 percent video selections. That's down to 80 percent this year.

"Last year we only had video and DVDs with only a small selection of books and other BBC-related merchandise," she said. "The Britannia catalog had furniture, table-top items, collectible teapots and glasses."

Early results from the spring 2004 mailing reveal that the top-selling items so far are comedies that are also new BBC video releases, including: "Keeping Up Appearances: Hyacinth Springs Eternal Seasons 3-5," ($79.98); "'Allo 'Allo!," ($34.98); and "As Time Goes By Series 6" ($24.98).

The catalog's average price per item has fallen from $55 last year to $45.

"We did add a lot of new merchandise that makes the selection much broader than in the past," Haberman said. "This is primarily a video catalog, and we hope people find videos and add-on merchandise, though it's really not a catalog focused on merchandise. We hope they find what's new on DVD and find something as an add-on."

Such add-ons include: a Sherlock Holmes Teapot ($39.98); "British English: A to Zed," a compilation of more than 5,000 slang terms "for incurable Anglophiles" ($18.98); and a personalized ceramic house marker ($41.98).

Prospects accounted for a little more than half of recipients a year ago but have fallen this year to 20 percent. Names acquired from the Britannia house file have boosted overall circulation and made up for the drop in prospecting.

"[We] tried to reactivate many of the old Britannia names since it made more financial sense," she said. "Britannia names, for the spring, were roughly half of the total number of house file names we mailed to. This spring the house file segment we targeted included just about everybody from the original BBC file who bought from the catalog during the past two years, and that represented most of the file. With the Britannia names, it was basically a cross section."

The spring books dropped Jan. 7. The book had been produced four times annually, with the frequency rising to nine times yearly in 2004, keeping in line with what Britannia had done.

"We put out three books in the fall, and we had to hire a buyer in September from the Britannia catalog," she said. "[The buyer] knew which types of products would appeal to the Britannia customers."

Mailing a week later than the spring book was the Canadian version of the catalog -- BBC Canada Shop, which is virtually identical except for prices being in Canadian dollars.

The exchange rate provides part of the reason for higher prices in the Canadian version, along with differences between the countries regarding some distributors' and manufacturers' suggested prices. Year-to-year circulation for BBC Canada Shop stayed between 75,000 and 80,000.

Results thus far have included a 10 percent increase in average order size in the United States with the total reaching in the $90s, and $100 in Canada.

Percentages for the sales channels matched year-ago levels, with phoned-in orders accounting for 60 percent to 65 percent of sales and Web orders generating 10 percent to 15 percent. The rest of the U.S. business comes from order forms mailed in.


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