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
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
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
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
Both know that getting in first will be one of the few advantages once
M&S decides to join the market.