Before shopping by mail, learn how to choose and use the catalogs

It's one day after Halloween. Twenty-seven days before Thanksgiving. And Christmas catalogs from more than 10,000 retailers and direct-mail companies are already flooding the mail. Some American families will receive up to 40 of these catalogs and many will do at least part of their holiday shopping by mail.

G. Marc Bauman, senior vice-president of Hammacher Schlemmer, a New York retail store that has been selling by mail for 137 years, has this advice for stay-at-home buyers:

Apply the same standards to mail shopping as you would when you buy at a retail store by dealing with established, reputable firms.

Read the company history that is usually included in the catalog. A mail-order firm that has been around for a long time probably has earned customer confidence by providing good quality service.

Carefully examine the product through the catalog photographs and copy. Check the color, then look for descriptions of size, weight, materials, and manufacturer, as well as price. Firms should indicate how the product operates (on battery, for instance), what the product includes, and whether or not shipping is included in the price.

Remember to place mail orders well in advance of the desired delivery date, even though companies should ship your order within five days of receipt and inform you of any delay.

Check the guarantee and refund policy of a mail-order firm. Some companies stipulate a time limit for the guarantee and do not refund your return postage costs, should you have to send a product back. Also check to see that the catalog company offers a customer service phone number, should questions or a need for more information arise.

Since delays are often caused by simple errors, carefully check to see that you have not transposed credit card account numbers and that you have provided the expiration date of your credit card. Also provide a street mailing address as most companies cannot deliver to a post office box.

Since you may not want to be deluged with catalogs you didn't order, remember that reputable companies will honor a request that your name not be given to others who are developing mailing lists.

Even if you've followed all this advice, there are times when a product just doesn't measure up, carries manufacturer's defects, or was damaged in the mail. What do you do?

First, contact the mail-order company. Generally, because the company wants high ratings in the mail-order business, your complaints will be handled. However, if those efforts fail, a second recourse is to contact a local Better Business Bureau.

A final means for handling problems is to file a complaint of mail fraud with a postal inspection office. If your local post office has no such office, your complaint will be forwarded to the appropriate person.

If you are not currently receiving any catalogs and would like to, you can order ``The Great Catalog Guide'' for $2 from the Direct Marketing Association, 6 East 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

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