AGENDA: Catalogues gear up for war - Catalogue specialists Littlewoods and Freemans have taken steps to boost their brands in the face of competition from digital TV and a new generation of retailers offering quality designer labels by post. Lucy Barrett

Jump back ten years and home shopping was being lauded as the Next Big Thing in retail. But although digital TV is opening up interesting possibilities for the next few years, buying from catalogues has not turned out to be the popular alternative to shopping that was once predicted.

Jump back ten years and home shopping was being lauded as the Next

Big Thing in retail. But although digital TV is opening up interesting

possibilities for the next few years, buying from catalogues has not

turned out to be the popular alternative to shopping that was once

predicted.



It’s not for want of the catalogue retailers trying. Last week,

Marketing reported on two new initiatives from Littlewoods and Freemans,

two of the biggest players in the market.



Littlewoods is planning to boost its Index brand, which at the moment is

mainly ordered by shoppers visiting Littlewoods stores.



Freemans, meanwhile, has just appointed advertising agency WCRS to

promote its new upmarket catalogue. Much is resting on the development

of this new catalogue - said to have been called ’Names’ - as Freemans’

owner Sears is thought to be preparing for the flotation of the business

over the next few weeks.



Freemans, one of the original brands in the market, has been having a

tough time in past years, with a declining market share.



It has been hit, like Grattan and Great Universal Stores (GUS), by the

new generation of catalogues offering high fashion, and even designer

clothes from established brands.



Next Directory, the oldest of the new generation, has been followed in

the past couple of years by the likes of Racing Green and the Empire

stores-owned La Redoute. Appealing to an older age group, brands

including N Brown and Eddie Bauer are already making smaller but

fast-growing inroads into the customer base of Freemans and GUS.



Freemans is reacting to the growth in these heavily-branded designer

offerings by bringing out a version of its own. The company is expected

to invest between pounds 1m and pounds 2m in advertising the new

catalogue, which will be distanced from the Freemans brand.



With the huge rise in the numbers of working women over the past ten

years and the increasing demand on people’s time, catalogue shopping

should be more popular than ever. But growth in the sector is currently

lower than inflation.



It seems that many people still have a psychological barrier about not

being able to see products, particularly clothes, before they buy. The

only areas of growth are in the upper price scale, which Freemans has

spotted and is hoping to capitalise on.



Competitor Littlewoods has just as much riding on its Index brand.

Having acknowledged that its high street business is firmly on the wane

(disposal of stores has already started), it is prioritising catalogue

shopping.



Despite being knocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission’s refusal

to let it take over Freemans, Littlewoods intends to push ahead. Plans

for Index include bringing more co-ordination between the products

available from catalogues in Littlewoods stores and those sent out in

the post.



Littlewoods is also known to be talking to advertising agencies about

mounting a campaign to boost the brand.



But the two firms still have a number of barriers to success. Firstly

the inherent problem with catalogues of returned goods. Because

purchases are made ’blind’, much has to be sent back. This necessitates

either a well-structured distribution system or the willingness of

consumers to deal with the postal system.



The second is the growing threat from Marks & Spencer. M&S moved into

the market quietly in the late 80s with a home catalogue and more

recently has revealed plans to bring out a clothing title.



Littlewoods already knows how much of a grip M&S has on the retail

clothing market. M&S’s success has been largely responsible for

squeezing Littlewoods to the unprofitable edges of the market.



This explains Freemans’ and Littlewoods’ haste to boost their

brands.



Both know that getting in first will be one of the few advantages once

M&S decides to join the market.