WHILE MANY shoppers this Christmas pack the corridors of malls or brave the winds and blowing snow to trek through neighborhood stores, it seems that a growing number of shoppers are picking their holiday gifts through catalogs.
Today's "time-deprived" consumers are spending between $25 billion and $35 billion annually on goods found in about 8,000 catalogs spanning an estimated 50 product categories. About $1.7 billion was spent on shopping by television last year.
Direct marketing may be enjoying a renaissance as marketers continue to sharpen their methods of reaching the increasingly finicky consumer. But in spite of high sales and rapid growth, many catalog retailers said they are not insulated from the current recession.
"The catalog business was growing faster than the retail business until this summer," said J. Duncan Muir, spokesman for J.C. Penney Co. Inc. "The climate (for catalog sales) is similar to what's going on in the retail quarters."
Total sales at J.C. Penney dropped 4.6 percent in November, Muir said. Catalog sales also have declined.
Nevertheless, Lisa V. Caugherty, spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association in New York City, insists that "the days of mass marketing are over. The age of the very direct market are here."
Consumers increasingly are willing to save time and let their fingers do the shopping. About 98.6 million people will shop by telephone or mail this year, which is 54.4 percent of the adult population and 71.8 percent more people than used catalogs seven years ago, Ms. Caugherty said.
Catalog sales usually increase by 12 percent each year, while retail sales generally increase 7 percent a year, she said, referring to industry estimates, since direct mail firms are largely private and do not release their annual sales.
Ms. Caugherty said catalog shopping has been healthy despite the retailing industry's general malaise.
"The reason why people are shopping this way is because it's convenient and reliable," she said. "They have a shopping mall coming into their homes."
However, some direct marketers say they have not escaped the current ebb in retail spending.
L.L. Bean, which sells casual and outdoor apparel and equipment out of Freeport, Maine, has seen sales sag below last year's mid-season peak. Holiday sales for L.L. Bean make up about 40 percent of annual sales, which last year reached $530 million, said Catharine Hartnett, company spokeswoman.
Discounting, a typical strategy retailers use to stimulate buying, is difficult for L.L. Bean because the merchandise available is set too far in advance to throw in unscheduled price cuts, Ms. Hartnett said.
The company relies on the strength of its merchandise to appeal to cautious consumers. "We realize that people are buying less on impulse for themselves," Ms. Hartnett said. "We insure high quality and good value."
"For Talbots, retail stores are doing better than the catalog," said Monet M. LeMon, spokeswoman for the Hingham, Mass.-based retail clothier and catalog company.
Including the company's store in Williamsville, Talbots has 187 women's clothing stores and two children's stores; it circulates about 80 million catalogs a year. About 30 percent of Talbots' $453 million in 1989 sales came from its catalog business.
Ms. LeMon said both the retail and catalog business have been hit in varying degrees by the current decline in spending.
"We don't see our catalogs outstripping retail, although that may be true in the industry," she said.
A local upscale gift store owner has joined the catalog movement and in October began shipping books throughout the country.
It is too soon for Pitt Petri to separate and compare store sales to catalog business, said Pitt (Pete) Petri, owner of the two local stores. Additionally, Western New Yorkers tend to bring the catalog to the store rather than order by telephone, he said.
But stocking the store with less expensive merchandise has helped the stores avoid "the retail crunch," he said.