By Tom Walker
Cox News Service
ATLANTA _ Charles Keath Ltd. is about to do something that would have been inconceivable for the Norcross-based catalog retailer just a few years ago: Mail out gift catalogs this close to Christmas.
"We would never mail a catalog as late as Thanksgiving five or six years ago," said Charles Edmondson, founder and president of the suburban Atlanta company which annually mails about 25 million catalogs.
"That would have been too late. But with today's overnight delivery, we guarantee Christmas delivery for orders that come in as late as Dec. 22 _ if we've got it in stock," said Edmondson, whose first and middle names were adopted as the name of the company.
Such are the advances that have turned catalog retailing into what some experts describe as "a growth industry," a universe of about 8,000 companies that send out about 4 billion catalogs a year.
The Direct Marketing Association Inc. estimates that 96 million Americans, or about one of every two adults, shop this way. And if they shop by catalog only once a year, it is likely to be at Christmas or some other holiday.
According to the consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, mail-order sales from all sources _ including TV shopping _ totaled about $213 billion last year.
Catalog retailing has been around at least since 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward started mailing merchandise from Chicago to Midwest farmers. He soon had competition from Sears, Roebuck Co., JC Penney Company Inc. and Spiegel Inc. Today, the names of catalog retailers are legion _ all of the above plus Lillian Vernon, Land's End, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew and others.
Virtually anything can be bought by catalog. While most offer gift items, upscale catalogs such as Neiman Marcus's Christmas Book this year offers "his and her" vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles with sidecars for $28,000 to $35,000.
Analysts offer both cultural and technological explanations for the rapid growth of mail-order sales, especially in the last 20 years: The number of households where both spouses work has increased dramatically. …