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Pet-Care Cataloger Pounces After Cautious 2003

Economic uncertainty and the start of the war in Iraq just over a year ago led Doctors Foster & Smith to take drastic action.

The cataloger eliminated prospecting from the mail plan for its main book that dropped in March 2003 with a circulation of 1.6 million.

“We were just coming off a really bad year in the economy, the war was beginning and the rest of the industry wasn't doing well, so we just decided to hunker down and see where the economy would take us and see what would happen with the war,” said Joe Voellinger, corporate communications manager at Doctors Foster & Smith, Rhinelander, WI.

“It was unusual because that coincides with a significant time for prospecting for us. At that time of the year I can't remember not doing any prospecting, and I've been here eight years. From a profitability standpoint, with the economy as it was, we decided just to be aggressive with our house file.”

But last year has become ancient history for the pet supplies marketer. This year's March 9 drop of its main catalog, produced five times annually, featured nearly double the circulation of a year ago, at 2.9 million. Also, 25 percent of the books went to prospects along with healthy growth in the house file.

“We test quite a few new lists each time we prospect to try to uncover some gems we may not have seen in the past,” Voellinger said. “After more than 20 years we have a good idea of what works, but we are always looking for some diamonds in the rough.”

The company targets what he called “your typical DM buyer,” including women ages 35-55 who own their home and have “maybe one kid left at home.” Lists used include catalogs that feature a relatively small amount of pet products.

“We'll pull from the list people who have bought pet-type products,” he said.

Page count rose year over year for the March drop from 160 to 172, prompted by new products.

The company has been rewarded so far with an average order of $77, up from $75 a year ago. The increase is occurring even as the catalog's average price per item stayed at $14.

“We want to get them to accessorize and buy more products,” Voellinger said. “We want to be known as a lower-price provider of pet supplies in order to drive volume, and so we try to keep prices as low as possible. A greater selection of products has helped drive the average order up.”

Among the new products pushing up the sales needle are the Quest Complete Dental Care Kit, priced from $29.99 to $91.99 for a 30-day kit and $3.99 to $9.49 for a three-day sampler. Prices are based on the weight of the dog. Also doing well is the Telescoping Pet Ramp, priced at $99.99, Sweet Dreams pajamas at $8.99 along with fashion pet goggles at $7.99.

“With the dog and cat carriers, for example — for some reasons at certain times in a product lifecycle — they become popular for awhile and carrier sales are up,” he said. “If we see a trend of increased sales in product segments, we'll expand that section to ride that wave.”

This year's cover includes several references to short, informational articles contained in the catalog, including: “Is your pet suffering from skin problems?”; “Signs of periodontal disease”; and “Easy ways to control shedding: On your pet, In your home.”

“I think it's something we'll be doing more of in the future,” Voellinger said. “Part of our niche is providing information. A lot of people call our catalog a magazine due to the amount of pet-care information in there. That cost per square inch is a lot to give up, but we believe those articles support our image and build loyalty.

“We've been doing informative articles for over a decade in our catalogs, and we have decided that that's who we are and it's very important. We mention them on the cover to get people to look for those articles, and within them we mention the product solutions we provide.”

About 85 percent of the products are targeted to dog owners with the rest for people who have cats. Those ordering cat-related merchandise receive a separate, smaller Just for Cats book. Along with the cat-only title, other catalogs produced by the company include Wild Bird, Aquarium Outfitters, Backyard, Small Pets, Reptile and Just for Birds.

The company's 24/7 call center operations are in Rhinelander and Hazelhurst, WI. The combined operation uses 100 people during the day shift, 50 for the second and 20 for the third.

The percentage of orders placed via phone in the past year has fallen from 50 percent to 47 percent, as Internet business at DrsFosterSmith.com is up from 37 percent to 45 percent. Order forms mailed in accounted for 13 percent of business last year, but have since fallen to 8 percent.

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