List Professionals Say Mailers Face Obstacles in Fall/Holiday Season

With slightly higher mail plans in place for fall/holiday 2004 than the previous year, initial softness has given way to better early fall 2004 results, though obstacles remain, according to list professionals.

“As hard as we're trying to be optimistic and go forward bulking up a little bit for this season, which I think we all felt we needed to do, it's going to be very tough in the face of four huge issues mailers face this fall,” said Linda Huntoon, executive vice president of Direct Media Inc., Greenwich, CT. She is also chairwoman of the Direct Marketing Association's List and Database Council.

The issues she cited that may affect the mailing season: increasing paper costs, the presidential election, the Olympic Games and the war in Iraq and threats of terrorism.

“Those are big things, and they are hanging over the holidays,” Huntoon said.

The rise in paper costs will affect all mailers eventually, but larger mailers that ordered paper in bulk earlier in the year probably will not feel the effect until next year.

However, the Nov. 2 presidential election will be a factor for all mailers.

“Every four years for about a week to 10 days before the election and about two to three days after it, business is not what it would be on an off year, but then it goes back to normal,” said Dennis Bissig, president of Mokrynski & Associates Inc., Hackensack, NJ.

The recounts and legal action that delayed the 2000 election results were an anomaly, he said, predicting that this year would provide a normal election.

Bissig also advised that changing mail dates because of the election might be a mistake.

“Anybody that asks us what they should do about the election gets told to mail when they normally do,” he said. “If Oct. 15 is the right time period, you have to be in the mail. If you move your mailing up or back two weeks, you may miss out on business.”

Some likely will adjust mail dates so their catalogs do not arrive too close to Nov. 2, said Fran Golub, senior vice president of list management at Walter Karl, a Donnelley Company, Pearl River, NY.

“Mailers have been asking, and we have told them they might want to think about shifting mail dates a little,” she said.

The Olympics are more of a wild card because it is unclear how focused consumers will be on them, Huntoon said.

Though consumers likely will watch at least some of the events, Bissig said, the Olympics probably won't slow sales much.

“The Olympics is something that everyone watches on television, but when they get tired of looking at sumo wrestlers or whatever, they may pick up a catalog or log onto the Web,” he said.

The war and the threat of terrorist attacks are the most vague problem for the fall/holiday season given that either could flare up at any time.

Despite the possible hardships for mailers this year, early fall results from plans that are a bit higher than in 2003 have been somewhat encouraging.

“We see a little more testing, not huge leaps but a little more,” Golub said. “I'm hearing people say that it looks like it's turning for the better, but slowly.”

Mid-ticket to upscale markets seem to be holding their own, she added, while lower-ticket mailers appear to be struggling.

“Plans are slightly higher than last year, and though we're still gathering information, what we have so far says that a little over 50 percent of our mailers are at or above plan for fall over this time last year,” Bissig said. “It looks like early fall results are getting a little stronger.”

Huntoon said it was tough for many mailers to find new sources of names to mail.

“Every time I say this in print someone calls me and says, 'You haven't tried my list,' but there is a dearth of new lists,” she said. “I do think that the mailers are trying very hard to increase their volume of outside names in the mail because they are all being impacted terribly by the reduced quantities in the preceding 24 months.”

Many mailers also are asking for hefty deals on list orders.

“There have always been deals, but deal negotiations have become rampant,” Golub said. “It's probably the worst I've seen. It's way more competitive and harder to make a dollar than it's ever been.”

As for the holidays, list professionals agreed that it would be hard to gauge until much later in the season because of the Internet. Not only is it difficult to allocate catalog-generated response from the Web, but online shopping encourages consumers to buy holiday gifts later in the season than they used to, Bissig said.

“I don't think that it's a black or a cloudy sky,” Huntoon said. “I just think that it's not what we're used to, and it's difficult to make judgments on current business using yesterday's methods.”

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