BOSTON — Stephanie Dodge measures her daily intake of catalogs the way most people measure rain - by inches.
"I get about four or five inches a day," says the Boston-area resident. Recently she went away for a few days and came back to nearly a foot of catalogs - and seven boxes. So it's no wonder that she bought her UPS delivery man a wedding gift.
Ms. Dodge is one of an increasing number of shoppers who buy from home - via catalogs, the Internet, and cable TV.
According to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), consumers and businesses will spend an estimated $84 billion on purchases from catalogs this year, up from $78 billion last year. Catalog sales are expected to grow by 6.7 percent a year to reach $103 billion by 2001.
Simply put, "the convenience factor is the reason," says Amy Blankenship, director of the Shop-At-Home Information Center with DMA.
Online retailers in the United States will generate $4.8 billion in revenues this year, predicts Forrester Research, a technology research firm based in Cambridge, Mass., surging to an estimated $17 billion in 2001.
The advantages are obvious: Time-restricted consumers can shop day or night, and order by phone, fax, or computer, thereby avoiding crowds, and crammed racks and shelves. Door-to-door service is convenient, and most companies have liberal return policies.
To be sure, the breadth and selection have never been more vast. From food and flowers to computers and camping equipment, specialty catalogs - many with corresponding Web sites - have diversified a marketplace once dominated by clothing. And if you really want to see for yourself, just pick up the catalog of catalogs.
"There's definitely increased competition from specialty catalogs," says Allison Scherer, spokeswoman for Spiegel, a name - like JCPenny and Sears - synonymous with catalogs.
Like most catalogs, Spiegel has an Internet site, where customers can order from the print or online versions. Going online was a natural and cost-effective move, says Ms. Scherer.
Lands' End, based in Dodgeville, Wis., distributes more than 211 million catalogs a year. The company has also benefited by being online, especially since it has broadened operations in such places as Britain, Germany, and Japan. During last year's holiday season the company beefed up its Internet services, such as offering a program on the Web site to help women find a swimsuit that would best flatter their particular figure. It also added an electronic greeting card feature.
But print catalogs aren't the only merchandisers leaping onto the Net. The cable TV shopping channel, QVC, has an interactive site in its second year. Called iQVC, it has sales exceeding $2 million a month. "Consumers are getting much more comfortable using alternative means to shop," says Stuart Spiegel, vice president and general manager at iQVC. Mr. Spiegel says there is a difference between the two approaches. Online is more of a "considered purchase" whereas buying something you see on television is more spontaneous, he says. Online shoppers usually have something in mind when they visit, as opposed to casual browsing through a catalog.
Another reason shopping-from-home sales have grown so rapidly is that companies are doing a better job in customer service, says DMA's Ms. Blankenship. Many companies have initiated personal shoppers, for example, who can play a bigger role in helping consumers make selections or shop for gifts.
Stephanie Dodge agrees that service has improved: "Before, there were just order-takers on the other end of the phone line. Now they are much more knowledgeable and helpful."
But for some consumers, shopping from home could never supplant the tactile, store experience. And even the most seasoned catalog shoppers admit that there's always a certain amount of guesswork. "I can't bring myself to buy something from a catalog then find it doesn't fit," says Joy Jenkens, who considers herself somewhat of a bargain shopper. "I also find the shipping costs on top of relatively expensive items to not be worthwhile." Still, she says she's curious about a gardening catalog Web site where you can buy overstocked items - sort of an addendum to the catalog.
Many companies have addressed the disappointment risk by including as much information as possible - visually and in print. Nicole Summers, a women's clothing catalog, guarantees its sizes. Many companies include return labels should you decide to send merchandise back.
For someone like Dodge, it's part and parcel of the lifestyle. "I know how to return," she says, matter-of-factly. "I have my tape and address labels...." Plus, you can often find bargains on the Internet, for example, that you wouldn't find elsewhere, she says. Recently, she ordered a Chanel handbag over the Internet (it was a $1,500 handbag that had been used - probably by a model on a runway - that she got for $400). When it arrived, she slung it on her shoulder, stepped in front of a mirror, and decided it looked too big for her 4-ft.,11-in. frame. So she sent it back.
Many people are insecure about giving their credit-card number out and even more, sending it over the Internet.
But company representatives argue that security measures make ordering safer than giving a credit card to a waiter at a restaurant.
In the case of Spiegel, online ordering came as a result of consumer demand. In effect, customers said "let us worry about it," says Scherer. "We have the same security measures online as we have with phone orders."
Web Sites to Try Out
There are thousands of vendors on the Internet. One Yahoo search for "Online shopping" brought up more than 700 sites - from the "AAA Australia Shopping Mall," which advertises jewelry, aboriginal art, and amino acids, to the Western Mall, where you can buy a Stetson Hat and Tony Lama boots.
No wonder directories and search engines have bloomed to help ease the search.
Here are a few to help wade through the "malls."