Mail-order houses discover the affluent and quality-minded customer

Retailers who wait in vain for prosperity to come through their doors are simply waiting at the wrong place, say those who have found prosperity at home.

The answer to retailing blues is mail-order sales, according to Arnold Lesser , marketing projects manager of Spiegel Inc., the nation's largest strictly catalog merchandiser.

''The economy is bad, but it isn't bad for everyone. There's a substantial group of people out there with large disposable incomes, largely because there are many more two-income families than there were five or six years ago,'' Mr. Lesser says.

''More and more women - people - are going to turn to catalog shopping because they don't have the time to go into a store, or put up with parking problems, or because there is a lack of sales people.''

Mr. Lesser's contentions are borne out by a direct marketing consultant who established his reputation in Chicago, where four of the five largest catalog retailers have their headquarters.

''More than 50 percent of married women today are employed outside the home'' Bob Stone, chairman of Stone & Adler Inc., says. ''That leaves little time for shopping. And there's great growth in leisure activities. People are avoiding the hassles of shopping and playing tennis instead. And they're shopping from the home.

''The other important development in catalog sales is growth in what we call the upscale market, and that's also a result of the two-income family. Even bus drivers and waitresses are making a combined salary of $40,000 a year, and that gives them a fantastic opportunity to dress like the people at the country club. And they feel more comfortable shopping out of a catalog than going to Saks.''

Mr. Stone says direct-marketing sales of merchandise and services have grown at twice the rate of overall retail sales. Yes, he adds, retail has shown growth , if only as a reflection of inflation.

''In 1978 mail order sold $60 billion in goods and services. As of Dec. 31, 1981, that figure was $120 billion for the year,'' he says.

Mr. Stone explained that direct marketing includes not only mail-order catalog sales, but telephone sales and direct-response advertising in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio. But catalog sales are impressive enough that the ''big five'' - Sears Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward & Co., Spiegel, and Aldens - all in Chicago - and J.C. Penney in New York are finding their turf getting crowded.

''An important development is that smart retailers are using direct marketing - Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, Bloomingdale's and Saks in New York, and Marshall Field here in Chicago. These smart retailers are saying, 'If we can't get them into the store we'll get them at home.' ''

In addition to those upscale retailers, a great many specialty catalog houses such as L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine; Horchow in Dallas, and Land's End in Chicago are finding their business, normally good, to be great.

''Our sales have doubled in the last two years,'' Bernie Roer, a Land's End vice-president, says. ''It's so painless to shop mail order or with a toll-free phone number and charge cards. With the economy down, people seem to be using catalogs more to find quality merchandise than to find low prices. They want things to last and they've found out it's not worth it to buy cheap stuff that falls apart.''

Land's End began in 1963 as a mail-order company specializing in hardware and fittings for racing sailboats. Since, it has evolved into a sportswear retailer. As if to emphasize its exclusivity, the Chicago-based company lists its address as Dodgeville, Wis.

Spiegel, once considered downright dowdy, has provided the most dramatic example of a company in pursuit of the affluent chic.

''It started about six years ago, when our new president, Henry Johnson, felt there was a need for a major catalog company to go after the emerging upscale market, with customers who were more fashion oriented, more aware of name brands and had more disposable income,'' says Mr. Lesser of Spiegel.

What has evolved is a super-slick, thick catalog filled with skinny models peering through tasteful fabrics from 271 highly glossed pages. That's half of the 1982 catalog. The other half starts upside down on the back page, depending on your point of view. It features furniture and home furnishings, upscale, of course.

The flip catalog from the ''New Spiegel'' was reportedly directed by Otto-Versand, the German fashion catalog company that bought Spiegel from Beneficial Corporation last year for $53 million.

While two-income families, more leisure, and less hassle are all given as reasons for increased catalog retail sales, Mr. Lesser wonders if that is all there is to it. Hard times may be hitting some people more equally than others, he says.

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