PORTLAND (AP) – Some people accustomed to finding their mailboxes stuffed with catalogs may have noticed a decrease in recent years.

For three consecutive years, the number of catalogs mailed across the country has been flat following a period of solid growth, and mail-order companies like L.L. Bean are being choosier about who receives their catalogs.

Frequent shoppers, however, are probably seeing as many catalogs as ever piling up just in time for the holiday season.

“They’re not mailing more, but they’re mailing better. They’re targeting the catalogs to the people who are most likely to buy,” said Amy Blankenship, spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association in New York.

The number of catalogs mailed out each year grew from 12.1 billion in 1993 to 16.6 billion in 2000, the year catalog companies were competing heavily with dot-come startups for holiday sales.

Since then, the number of catalogs has remained flat because of rising postal rates and a tightening economy.

But that’s still a lot of catalogs, and mail-order sales have continued to grow even though the number of catalogs has not.

At L.L. Bean, catalogs continue to account for the largest share of sales while the fastest growth continues to come from online sales, said L.L. Bean spokesman Rich Donaldson in Freeport.

L.L. Bean has held steady with distribution of about 200 million catalogs a year and there are no plans to scale back, he said. But the company is more careful about who receives catalogs to avoid being wasteful.

Blankenship said it goes to show that those who predicted online retailers would supplant catalog companies were wrong.

“Back in the old days, when the Internet was first catching on, people were predicting the demise of catalogs. But it’s the opposite. The Internet is helping catalog companies to grow their business,” she said.

Joseph Gates, 68, of Dover, Del., would have to agree with the assertion that catalog companies appear to be doing just fine.

He just finished his fall shopping with purchases from Orvis, Big & Tall and Woolrich, and he plans a few more purchases from L.L. Bean. He’s also looking at children’s catalogs for toys and books for his six grandchildren. And he receives catalogs with products for his dogs, an Irish wolfhound and a bijon frise.

All of those purchases beget more catalogs. He said many of the catalogs he receives are from companies with whom he does business. Others come unsolicited.

“What I’m seeing in my mailbox is more catalogs than ever,” said Gates, a retired school librarian.

Gates said he gets about 20 catalogs a day this time of year, and he has a joke for those days when he comes inside with an especially large bundle. “Sometimes when the catalogs pile up, I’ll come in and say, ‘There goes another tree,”‘ he said.

Thanks to customers like Gates, overall catalog sales have grown in recent years. Online sales have grown, as well.

Catalog sales have grown from $77 billion in 1997 to a projected $133 billion this year, Blankenship said. Internet sales have grown from $2.2 billion in 1997 to a projected $41 billion this year, she said.

It’s rare these days to find a company that focuses only on bricks-and-mortar retailing, or on catalog sales, or on online sales.

These days, L.L. Bean and other major retailers focus on all three “channels,” as they’re known to retailers.

“Customers expect to be able to shop in their own terms whenever they want and wherever they want,” Blankenship said. “The retailers who can provide that to consumers are the most successful in the competitive retail environment.”

Direct Marketing Association http://www.the-dma.org/

L.L. Bean http://www.llbean.com/

AP-ES-11-28-03 1242EST

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