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Blind Consumers Get the Gift of Audio Catalog Shopping

How often do catalogers get the chance to gain new and loyal multibuyers while supporting a good cause, all for a modest flat fee? That’s the opportunity offered by the nonprofit organization Home Readers, which records and mails audio versions of catalogs to the blind and visually impaired.

Home Readers got its name from training stay-at-home moms and others to read the catalogs into portable recorders, adding descriptive elements that may be missing from the catalog copy.

“Our readers paint a verbal picture so the consumers can understand what the items are like,” said Kathy Eble, founder/president of Home Readers, Edgerton, KS, who was vision impaired and lost her sight completely after college. “It’s really important for a reader to tell what we can’t see.”

Though Eble and her husband, Bill, started Home Readers nearly 10 years ago, the still-fledgling company gained nonprofit status two years ago because it needed the help to continue, she said. The company has done no fundraising yet.

“There are a number of things we want to do, but it’s basically three of us running our office, and we just haven’t had enough manpower to do it,” she said. “We started with no money and an idea. I wanted to be able to do something from home as a job but also do something for other people. We quickly found out that it wasn’t going to be a paying job for a long time.”

Catalogers pay a flat fee that averages $500 depending on the length of the catalog and how many tapes it requires. The money covers the reader’s fee to record the descriptions as well as the cassette tapes and shipping materials. As a nonprofit serving the blind and visually impaired community, Home Readers can mail the tapes for free, which normally would cost about $1 each to send.

Thirty catalogers participate including Audio Editions, Avon, Blair, Chef’s Catalog, Collector’s Choice, Doctors Foster and Smith, Figi’s, Lands’ End, Miles Kimball, Puritan’s Pride, Schwan’s Foods and Vermont Country Store. Home Readers has a list of more than 3,800 blind and visually impaired people who receive its audio catalog of catalogs from which they can request specific titles on tape. Only about 100 tapes go out for each catalog.

One direct marketer who has worked with Home Readers since 1997 and also is a volunteer member of the organization’s board is Tim Littleton, senior vice president of marketing at Chef’s Catalog, Colorado Springs, CO. He was part of the group that acquired Chef’s from Neiman Marcus in November 2004.

Chef’s just did its first Home Readers catalog with its holiday 2005 book. But before joining Chef’s, Littleton was with fellow cataloger and participant Walter Drake.

“At Walter Drake, response was good enough for us to continue to participate for the seven years I was there,” Littleton said.

As for his current participation, Littleton said the main reason is as a service to the Chef’s customers whom Home Readers serves but it’s also a source of revenue.

“We decided to send them Chef’s holiday catalog this year, which is a 124-page book that they read on tape, and we’re just getting the early results now, and I have to say it is exceeding our expectations,” he said.

Vermont Country Store has participated with its Voice of the Mountains catalog since 1999, after being contacted by Eble.

“We were mulling the idea over for a while, and then we actually had a customer call and ask us if by any chance we had our catalog on tape, so that was really a good impetus to get the thing rolling,” said Judi Copping, product research analyst at Vermont Country Store, Manchester, VT.

Though Copping admitted that VCS doesn’t track response to the Home Readers version of its catalogs closely, she said results usually cover the company’s costs to have it recorded and sent out by Home Readers.

“We haven’t really been that diligent tracking response because it’s a service that we don’t want to walk away from,” she said.

However, she said, results sometimes exceed the print catalog, as in Christmas 2003 when the company saw an average order of $108, more than double its average order of $50 for the print catalog.

Still, Eble has difficulty getting catalogers to try the program and hopes to convince more of what she already knows.

“People within the blind and visually impaired community have money to shop just like everybody else,” she said. “They have children, they have pets and they buy all the items that sighted people buy — and they usually spend more because it’s harder for them to get to stores.”

With an estimated 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, the potential for growth is significant. Home Readers’ customers also tend to be loyal to the brands that join the program, Eble said, because they appreciate the effort to serve their needs.

“Customers call in and suggest catalogs to us,” she said.

The toy category is one that Eble would like to get as well as music and more apparel and food catalogs.

“Blind and visually impaired people love their food and they love their music,” she said. “I’m a walking billboard for my company, and I order quite a bit. My husband would tell you that I’m a shopaholic.”

Littleton said he joined the Home Readers board to help Eble recruit more catalogers and serves as a reference for the organization, as does Copping.

“Nothing frustrates me more than when Kathy is trying to recruit a new cataloger, and these are companies that have revenue of over $100 million, and they’re denying it because they say their P&L doesn’t work,” Littleton said. “We’re talking about an average cost of about $500.”

Littleton also plans to do more analysis after the holidays of response to the Home Readers version of Chef’s Catalog. He suspects that many orders placed from a Home Readers catalog don’t get attributed properly because the customer isn’t using the proper source code.

“Whatever the sales are, I would increase them due to the number we get without source codes,” he said. “There is a lot for somebody to remember when he or she calls in an order because they are listening to it, and a complicated source code might be the most difficult thing to remember.”

Littleton also said he’s ensuring that his call center is aware of the program so the representatives can capture the source code even if someone just mentions Home Readers.

Kristen Bremner covers list news, insert media, privacy and fundraising for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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