Reflections on NEMOA evolution

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Tim Litle, chairman of Litle & Co., could be excused for waxing nostalgic about the New England Mail Order Association during his presentation yesterday. After all, it is the 60th anniversary of the well-respected catalog group, and Mr. Litle has been an influential member for much of its existence.

The official NEMOA history isn’t written down anywhere, so relying on his own memory and conversations with other long-time members, Mr. Litle recalled how the organization was started by a group of catalogers – each with his own strong personality – who were primarily using magazine advertising for prospecting. There wasn’t much in the way of lists at the time, he explained.

Early participants such as Sam Bachelor of Appleseeds, Luther Breck of Brecks of Boston, and Karl Lipsky of Jennifer House came together to experiment with list sharing. Once they discovered that it worked, they began to discuss list exchanges.

At the time, at least one cataloger’s list was divided by buyers who purchased within the last five years, those who had made a purchase within the last 5-10 years and anyone who hadn’t made a purchase in more than 10 years.

Later, the industry began to change as many of the original owners and founders of catalogs moved on and private capital came into some of the catalogs. As a result, it wasn’t as driven by independent personalities and the sharing of information became less specific, Mr. Litle said.

By the early 1980s, attendance at NEMOA events was low.

This was followed by a period of growth and revival in catalog industry, driven mainly by the fact that many catalogers adopted credit cards and toll-free numbers for the first time. This changed the industry a lot, Mr. Litle said, recalling when most orders came in by mail. It was possible to weigh the in-coming mail for the day and come up with a fairly accurate sales estimate.

The catalog industry’s first response to the Internet years wasn’t exactly stellar, Mr. Litle said. For example, many simply scanned their catalog pages, put these pages online and joked about how so few orders were coming in. Today, many catalogs take half or more of their orders through the Internet.

For the future, Mr. Litle said that catalogs would be successful if they embraced the concept of remote selling and that the symbiotic relationship between catalogs, the Internet and stores would continue to evolve.

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