Speaking Directly: Mail order test a study in sagas

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.I often...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

I often wonder why, in these hectic times, more people don’t shop at their leisure from mail order catalogues, avoid the crowds, hassles and last-minute panic.

This past season, I took Lands’ End’s advice to ‘Do your Christmas shopping in your pajamas,’ and discovered that, as is often the case, there’s a bright side and a dark side to the story.

My first task was to acquire catalogues.

In Canada, they don’t pour into the mailbox at the rate of 15 or so a day as they do in the u.s. However, through pre-planning and persistence, I came up with about 40 mail order catalogues, from which I placed 16 orders around Nov. 1.

To save the time spent on phone calls, I faxed my orders. Following are a few highlights of my catalogue shopping experience:

Lands’ End, Disney and Coldwater Creek had everything in stock and delivered within one week. I was off to a great start.

Without doubt, the ultimate customer service treatment was from The Albertine Catalogue.

They shipped within two days, but sent one wrong item. I phoned, and they said they would correct the problem.

The next day, the person who had made the mistake showed up with the replacement item, and left a note of apology for the inconvenience.

Now, this approach certainly wouldn’t be feasible or economical on a large scale, but, what a great way to reduce picking errors.

After that, the rest was anti-climactic.

One of the overriding problems was the cataloguers’ ability to read their own order forms after they were faxed. Most of them called back to verify (gold stars for that), or get help with reading information (time to redesign the order form.)

Jacaranda Tree was one of those who called back.

To help them out, I refaxed the order with the information typed rather than handwritten. Several weeks went by, and when the order did not appear, I called, and learned they had lost it, and we had to start all over.

Then, when it did arrive, out of five items, one was picked wrong, and another was out of stock.

Bridgehead had two items out of stock, and one sold out. One out-of-stock item showed up before Christmas, and I received a letter Dec. 20 offering me the choice to wait for, or cancel, the remaining item.

The all-round worst service performance rating goes to Amy Allison, which, out of 12 items ordered, three were discontinued, one was received in early December, and who knows where the rest are because I cancelled the remainder of the order.

Another raspberry goes to The Popcorn Factory for their shipping charges.

I had ordered from a corporate mailing package sent to my Canadian office, which showed the u.s. charges on the catalogue order form, along with the Federal Express logo.

When they called to confirm the faxed order, the lady on the phone said, ‘Oh, by the way, shipping charges will be different than on the order form. Shipping via ups will cost 50% of the value of your order.’ In u.s. dollars, I might add.

Needless to say, that order was promptly scratched.

Added Touch shipped three out of six items, and only shipped the other three after a follow-up call.

J. Crew was out of stock on three items, but did supply a promised ship date (after Christmas.) In fact, all but the first three orders had a little saga of some kind attached.

What criteria did I use for evaluation? I think my needs were likely typical of most customers:

1. Ship the complete order the first time.

2. Deliver quickly without charging an arm and a leg.

3. Don’t make any mistakes, and, if you do, handle them promptly and well.

For anyone contemplating or already in the catalogue business, I suggest that, given product, pricing, target audience and timing issues are resolved, the above three things are about all you have to do well.

But, talk to some experts first. It’s not as easy as it looks.

The question is, will I (and all the other Canadian catalogue shoppers who had similar experiences) try again this year, or will the retail rush not seem so bad after all?

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues.