Catalogers Hope for Last-Minute Sales

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Catalogers are counting on the urge of last-minute shoppers to help an erratic holiday season that has been weak for apparel but strong for toys, gifts and home merchandise.

As Christmas approaches, catalogers and industry watchers agree that next week's expected flurry of sales makes it to difficult to get a read on the full season.

"We're going to take it down to the wire this year," said Debbie Koopman, spokeswoman at Spiegel, Downers Grove, IL, who added that the company is pleased with sales from its two main catalogs, fall/winter and holiday.

"It isn't going to be the disaster people thought," said catalog analyst Kevin Silverman of ABN Amro, Chicago. "We're still in a position to wait and see with the industry pushing orders to later and later in the season."

Silverman said this year's calendar gives shoppers an extra day before Christmas, while catalog consultant Bill Dean of W.A. Dean & Associates, San Francisco, said people have become conditioned to wait until the last minute to shop.

"That's the sign [that people are waiting]," said Dean, who predicted the industry will improve sales by 6 percent to 7 percent. "In November, you didn't hear too many people talking very enthusiastically. In December, you hear a lot more people talking about how business is better."

Bill Nicolai, senior vice president of marketing for the Good Catalog Company, Portland, OR -- which maintains home, garden and gift books -- said a strong finish can't rescue what has been an overall weak season for his company.

"It's been an up-and-down year, where the ups have been only as good as expectations and the downs have been way below expectations," he said. "You net that out, I would call it a poor year."

Proprietary gift-type products have enjoyed a strong season and pushed the performance of catalogs from The Sharper Image, Williams-Sonoma and Harry and David, Silverman said.

Bill Ihle, spokesman for Harry and David parent Bear Creek Corp., Medford, OR, which also runs the apparel catalog Northwest Express, confirmed that sales are ahead of projections for the year. Hanover Direct, Weehawken, NJ, which maintains four apparel catalogs in addition to its home and specialty books, expects to meet its holiday expectations, said chief financial officer Larry Svoboda.

Fingerhut president William J. Lansing was upbeat about sales this season. In addition to its new and specialty catalogs such as Cooks Book, Rooms for Living and Linens doing well, the Minnetonka, MN, catalog giant has seen strength in electronics, computers and Furby.

"Furbys kicked in with us earlier than with everyone else because we had it in our Christmas catalog, which mailed quite some time ago," he said. "We have had building volume in Furbys all through November."

Fingerhut is on track to sell 50,000 Furbys by Christmas -- and while retailers struggle to keep them in stock, it expects to have a stock of 100,000 for post-holiday buyers. Furby mania has overshadowed a weak year in outerwear for Fingerhut.

While the impact of an unseasonably warm fall is hard to gauge, the impact of the Internet is indisputable. The 1998 season has been a testing ground for online catalogs. Major catalogers with robust Web sites have told Dean the Internet could account for 6 percent to 7 percent of their holiday business. Dean said these are companies that do more than 50 percent of their annual volume during the holiday period.

"If they are going to be successful, others will jump on," he said. "If this Christmas had been poor on the Internet, then I would say the Internet is not that strong, but I think it's really coming on."

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