Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cruising the Catalogs More Shoppers Trade the Mall for the Couch

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cruising the Catalogs More Shoppers Trade the Mall for the Couch

Article excerpt

After a long day, film reviewer Judith Crist admits to indulging in a secret passion: She curls up with a beverage, kicks off her shoes, and pulls out some plastic for a night of catalog shopping.

That's how she discovered her 18-foot feather duster, that "fabulosa almond toffee" and most of the additions to her wardrobe, among other things.

"I don't like going into stores and trying on things . . . so I buy even my shoes from catalogs," said Crist, an admitted catalog junkie. "I've already been screening them with an eye toward Christmas."

Crist's shop-at-home preference is shared by an increasing number of consumers. In recent weeks, most have found their mailboxes crammed with holiday catalogs hawking everything from miniature TVs to portable clambakes.

While some consider catalogs to be glorified junk mail, others see the sleek publications, with their high-quality photographs and folksy rhetoric, as an important source for convenient shopping, albeit usually at a premium price.

Last year, more than half the adult population ordered a combined $51.5 billion worth of merchandise from the 13.5 billion catalogs mailed out - about a 75 percent increase over a decade ago, says the Direct Marketing Association.

The trade group expects sales to grow steadily through the '90s as more retailers start specialty catalogs and busy two-income households abandon the old shop-'til-you-drop motto.

"People don't have the time to run out to the shopping malls on their weekends. They may have disposable income, but they're time-poor," said Deborah Warner, a spokeswoman for Hammacher Schlemmer, purveyor of upscale gizmos and gadgets. "That's why they shop by catalog."

Hammacher Schlemmer derives about 85 percent of its business from catalog orders and boasts the longest continuously published catalog in the nation. (Its recently mailed holiday book includes a Babe Ruth autographed baseball for $4,990.)

The unusual or hard-to-find merchandise offered in many catalogs - even the environmental group Greenpeace has one out now - has always been a draw for shoppers.

But the proliferation of toll-free, 24-hour telephone service for credit-card users, along with faxing options and overnight deliveries, has helped the catalog industry's growth explode in recent years. Fierce competition, which contributed to the recent demise of the granddaddy Sears catalog, also has led to improved service.

Got a hankering for fishing gear at 3 a.m.? No problem. Don't know what to do about your mom's birthday two days away? No problem there either.

"The one thing we really strive for is customer service," said Michele Casper, a spokeswoman for Lands' End Inc., where the average order is $60 to $80.

Casper said Lands' End patrons are "willing to spend the money to have an item that will last. …

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