Sunbelt Scales Back to Weather Rough Sales Period

Sunbelt Sportswear reduced its holiday catalog plans after seeing soft sales even before Sept. 11, and the move helped it endure weak holiday sales in which its $90 average order size was well short of the anticipated $105.

“It could've been a lot worse and we were grateful it wasn't, but we are disappointed and we are going to have to tighten our belts,” said Kevin Haynes, executive vice president of Sunbelt Sportswear, San Antonio.

Sunbelt mailed 500,000 winter 2001 books, down from 1.1 million winter 2000 books, and reduced the page count from 88 to 68. Despite fewer pages, the winter 2001 catalog had 368 items, up from 289 in 2000.

“As we were coming into the winter season things were soft, but we were going to look to slam more books out if the economy picked up,” Haynes said. “But with the economy as it was, the plan for reduced circulation was already in place, and when Sept. 11 happened, we stuck with the reduced circulation.”

Most of the cuts came from the company's prospecting lists.

“We saw a decline in prospecting results in the spring and summer, and so we cut back on prospecting [for the winter],” he said. “About 50 percent of [the winter 2000] catalogs went to prospects, and this year it was 20 percent. We did stick with some of the compiled lists that tend to perform better for us compared to some of the mass retailers, who were, in many instances, virtually eliminated in favor of the compiled lists.”

Haynes would not discuss response rates but said the numbers support the cutback in prospecting.

“We don't know if the response rate would have held if we maintained the same level of prospecting in 2001 as we did in 2000,” he said. “Based on what I've heard from people in the industry regarding their response rates during the holiday season, we believe we made the right decision.”

The winter books went out Sept. 21, Oct. 12 and Nov. 2. Sunbelt used different covers for each drop to “give the appearance of a new look to the customer since the most profitable segments of our customer lists would be hit three times,” he said.

He described teachers and women's apparel lists as among the most productive for Sunbelt.

“Teachers are a compiled list,” he said. “You mail these catalogs into teachers' lounges at the school address, and the ladies get together and place large, combined orders, thus increasing average order size. That's been a niche for this company for years and has held up even with changes in price points over the years. We also mail to beauty salons and the same thing happens. Those are the best compiled list segments.”

One area that worked in the winter 2001 book was the winter clearance section, which doubled in size to 16 pages.

“It's been a very successful tool that we've used to get rid of discontinued and excess inventory with lower price points,” he said. “We expanded its size because of a buildup in some of the excess inventory. A portion of that inventory is where you might have certain sizes and/or certain colors available for certain items.”

Haynes also reported that the company is in discussions regarding a possible sale of the business, though he would offer no details.

“We have a very strong and loyal customer base and a brand that dates back to 1979,” he said.

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