List Professionals Look Past Spring for Rebound

With another postal rate increase looming this summer, list professionals are hedging their bets on recovery until the latter part of the year and expecting a conservative spring mailing season.

“I think we're going to see a decline in circulation for acquisition names in the spring and into the fall,” said Mike Hayden, senior vice president of the catalog list brokerage division at Millard Group Inc., Peterborough, NH.

Hayden said he expects an overall circulation decrease of about 4 percent to 5 percent.

Another list professional said that circulation for spring 2002 looks similar to last year when mailers started to worry about the economy.

“Right now spring circulation is about level with last year, which was generally on the low side,” said Fran Golub, senior vice president of list management at Walter Karl, Pearl River, NY, a division of Donnelley Marketing.

Economic factors certainly play a big role in mail planning, and most mailers seem to be opting for caution this spring. Even so, mailers expect to meet their goals this spring — largely because they adjusted those goals to be realistic.

“I think people planned accordingly and that mailers are expecting to hit plan,” said Karen Mayhew, group sales director at Direct Media Inc., Greenwich, CT. “The economy hasn't been good for quite a while now, and in a lot of cases spring especially may not have been that aggressive.”

Hayden agreed, saying that early results appear on or close to plan in many cases.

However, as had been the case for a while, mailers are finding that universe counts are down on lists they regularly rent.

“With results being somewhat soft in 2001, the three-month and six-month universe counts for a lot of lists that folks are taking are smaller so the number of qualified names are smaller in those recencies,” Hayden said.

Direct Media does a report on file size comparisons that highlights the drop-off in counts, Mayhew said.

“If you look at the 12-month universes year-over-year there are very few that have actually gone up,” she said. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for mailers to find names.”

As a result, a lot of mailers are doing reuses.

Also, many list managers have encouraged list owners to enhance their files to make them more appealing to mailers looking to make up circulation.

“The counts have been down for almost a year, which is why we keep enhancing as many files as possible to make the selectivity better,” Golub said.

Mayhew said that some mailers are going deeper into their tried-and-true continuation lists as well as turning to modeling to find more names to mail.

Though the impending postal rate increase likely will take effect June 30 and raise rates an average of 8.7 percent, list professionals see few mailers increasing circulation before then.

“The majority of the mailers that I speak to were not planning any changes in circulation prior to the postal rate hike,” Mayhew said. “They were basically taking a look at it but trying to weigh what the drop in response would be versus their savings.”

Golub said that her clients have barely mentioned the rate increase.

“It's not like a couple of years ago when everyone was freaking out,” she said.

Though mailers aren't happy about the increase, Hayden said, it doesn't make sense for most to mail more at a time of year that's iffy at best for many mailers.

“What's really alarming is that in most cases postage has crept up to be about 50 percent of your cost of the catalog in the mail,” he said. “Just a few years ago it was somewhere around a third.”

Many mailers and list professionals seem to have pinned their hopes to the second half of 2002.

“I think that people are counting on things turning around this year but not quite yet,” Golub said.

Most mailers would be happy to see a recovery by autumn.

“For a lot of mailers fourth quarter is their bread and butter, and expectations for fall/holiday 2002 are pretty optimistic,” Mayhew said.

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