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Sep. 28--A sure sign of the changing seasons appears in mailboxes when catalogs begin spilling out en masse.
Catalog businesses send them expecting that the predominantly female recipients will shop, and women certainly do that. But they also welcome catalogs for other reasons.
"I love just looking through catalogs," says Beth Polonsky, 51, of Arlington Heights. "They're entertaining. Lands' End always has their little stories. The Lillian Vernon catalog has products you just don't find in stores.
"I even leaf through the ones I usually don't buy from. It's relaxing. It's down time."
Despite hundreds of retail, television and online shopping outlets, catalogs are retaining their allure, and many mimic magazines.
Peruvian Connection's fall catalog, for example, featured models in its sumptuous knitwear against scenic vistas of Crete. Chico's chose Dunton Hot Springs resort in Colorado as a backdrop for its fashions.
This year catalog sales are expected to hit $152 billion, compared with Internet sales of $64 billion, according to Amy Blankenship, director of the Direct Marketing Association's Shop-at-Home Information Center in New York.
Surveys by the association show that 6 out of 10 shoppers hang on to the catalogs for at least three months after they order or until new ones arrive.
"People use them for reference, comparison shopping, ideas and entertainment," Blankenship says.
Catalogs are popular "because women can shop on their own time," says Robin Sheldon, founder and president of Soft Surroundings, a women's catalog based in Hazelwood, Mo., that sells clothing, bedding and cosmetics. "They don't have to worry about a place to park, how they look."
Lea Anderson, 52, an accountant living in Springfield, Va., and one of Soft Surroundings' loyal customers, may be typical.
"If I think I want something in a catalog, I may put it aside and come back to it in a couple days," she says. "If I wake up in the middle of the night or before I go to bed, I either call in the order or go online."
Quite a few catalog companies offer customers three channels for buying: phone, Internet and retail stores.
Customers--not retailers--choose the way they shop, says Ed Whitehead, marketing director for Lands' End, a pioneer in online apparel sales.
"All of us are looking at what makes the shopper [choose] among retail, online and direct," he says. "Nobody has unlocked that code yet."
Anderson prefers traditional catalogs but says she also views products online, finding it "interesting" to enlarge the images. But when she has questions about an item, she calls and asks for help.
Carol Luft, 52, of Glenview, who began shopping by catalog years ago when her four children were young, pores over catalogs the way some women study fashion magazines. "I look at them to see what is new, what is popular," she says. "I use the catalogs as guides for what the good colors are for spring and fall."
Some women find the ever-changing naming of colors in catalogs entertaining in itself. For example, will shades of green be called celadon, peapod or peridot?
Catalog copy is an art form, and Coldwater Creek's copywriters excel in evocative descriptions. In a recent catalog, the caption for a necklace reads as follows:
"The magic hour: There's a fleeting moment when the sun and moon switch sides and dark suddenly eclipses pale pink. The splendid ceremony re-created in this handmade necklace where pink quartz, faceted black onyx and pink cultured freshwater pearls orbit on two sterling silver chains."
David Gunter, Coldwater Creek's spokesman, says the catalog's engaging "voice" is based on that of Ann Pence, one of the company's two founders. (She no longer is involved in the business.) "Some people say the copy is like two friends talking, but I call them novelettes," Gunter says.
Shoppers often feel a personal connection to their favorite catalogs, whether through the copy or notes from the owners in the front.
Coldwater Creek capitalizes on that phenomenon, inviting frequent buyers who live near soon-to-open stores to apply for sales positions.
Luft was one of those customers, and she now works at the Coldwater Creek store in Northbrook Court, which opened in June.
Stores are the wave of the future for catalog companies that want to reach what L.L. Bean spokesman Rich Donaldson calls "the whole cadre of people who don't shop direct" because they want to see merchandise first.
"Retail is one way to establish trust with the objective of converting that customer to a multi-channel customer," he says, adding that L.L. Bean has begun to open retail stores on the East Coast.
Someday catalogs may function as advertising vehicles for stores, but at this point it seems unlikely that most companies will stray too far from their roots, catalog spokesmen say.
Even in a very large store, L.L. Bean could house only a fraction of its current products, Donaldson says.
That's good news for catalog aficionados who would miss all the intriguing wish books.
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