A quick note: Our June issue was already at the printer while the 25th Annual Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants (ACCM) was taking place on May 19-22 in Kissimmee, Fla. So belatedly, here’s my postconference recap.
This was my 22nd consecutive tour of duty at what was once known as the National Catalog Conference, and the Annual Catalog Conference after that. But rest assured, I’m not going to give you one of these old-fogey reflections on how “it ain’t like it used to be.”
Instead, let’s track back just a few years to Boston, June 2001. That was probably the most apprehensive I can ever recall seeing attendees at an NCC/ACC/ACCM — and to think, the Red Sox hadn’t won their first (modern era) World Series yet.
Just three months prior to Sept. 11, the dot-com bubble was bursting and the economy was beginning to tumble. The mood among attendees was one of gloom and doom. Similar issues to today: costs rising, response falling.
Fast-forward to this year’s ACCM. Economic conditions are decidedly worse than June 2001: Postage is practically unaffordable, consumers aren’t spending any money, and environmentalists are on catalogers’ tails. It’s not a pretty picture right now. But the mood at this year’s event wasn’t that bad, even though attendance clearly was down (though I can’t confirm this since attendance figures are proprietary).
Perhaps that’s because most people I spoke with were of the mind-set that “well, duh! Of course business is bad, stupid!” Or perhaps they were just BS'ing me. But I doubt that. After so many years attending this event, I truly believe that most are a whole lot more candid with me about how they’re doing than, perhaps, in years past.
Certainly the exhibitors had reason to be unhappy — although not entirely miserable. Traffic in the exhibit hall was very quiet. That’s nothing new, however. For as long as I can remember, in good times and bad, exhibitors have complained about the lack of booth traffic at this conference. But hold on there. This year I also heard something a little different: A good number of vendors I spoke with said those visitors they did receive came prepared to do business. They felt that, despite the light attendance and lack of traffic, their money was well spent.
With an industry as diverse as the catalog/multichannel business, it’s never easy to draw conclusions. But having gotten around a lot this year — perhaps more than ever before — I came to several conclusions about where the business is heading.
1. Catalogers are working harder than I’ve ever seen. That common observation that they did more than merely mingle with vendors says a lot. It may be tough to draw a lot of money out of consumers’ pockets now, and rising costs may be crippling, but catalogers can’t be faulted for not trying hard enough.
2. More creative and practical vendors. Over the past year or so, NextAction, Abacus, CMS-Prefer Network, Brown Printing and others have launched new services or enhanced existing ones. Some have partnered with firms from other lines of work. Printer Quebecor World, which filed for Chapter 11 earlier this year, has teamed with Daystar Wheaton Group to offer database services.
3. Look for the fall/holiday season to jump-start catalogers. Though many will dance with the devil by OD’ing on promotional offers such as free shipping again, between more aggressive catalog and direct mailings and e-mail blitzes, catalogers could be in prime position to see some nice sales gains.
Maybe I just want to spread goodwill; I don’t know. But despite the negativity all around, I came away from the conference feeling upbeat about the future. Why? Consider these two thoughts:
1. The economy may not be a whole lot better by the fall, but the price of gas will likely be so high that more consumers will lock their car keys in a drawer and do their gift buying from home, which can only provide a boost for direct/multichannel merchants.
2. Consumers will be more optimistic once they get a better idea of who will replace President Bush. Besides, anybody who replaces Bush will be an improvement.
To propel your company to a favorable second half of 2008, you obviously can’t sit back and wait for the good (new president) and the bad (rising gas prices) to do your job for you. Keep up the hard work by examining your database more closely, improving your merchandise so the product offerings make yours the go-to company, examining more closely what vendors can do for you, and above all else, make sure you’re delivering what your customers want from you.