By DAVID SHARP
PORTLAND, Maine - Catalog shopper Kerry Falagario would be hard-pressed to tell that there's been a decrease in catalog circulation. They're coming fast and furious this time of the year: catalogs from specialty tool companies for her husband, who likes to tinker; American Eagle, Justice, Delia's and Body Central for her daughters, ages 8 and 14; and Pottery Barn or others with a focus on home decorations for herself.
"Just the other day, I had five. There wasn't even enough room for my mail," said Falagario, describing the stuffed roadside mail box outside her suburban Gorham home.
Despite the flood around the holidays, annual catalog circulation by retailers has actually dipped substantially because of a postage increase, a weak economy and more shoppers making purchases online. Nearly a third fewer catalogs are mailed than were four years ago.
L.L. Bean, the Freeport-based outdoors retailer, is among those that have scaled back page counts and become choosier about who gets its catalogs. Bean's catalog circulation has been relatively flat for the past few years, but the number of catalog pages declined 20 percent from last year, the company said.
Steve Fuller, L.L. Bean's marketing chief, sees the trend accelerating but he doesn't see catalogs going away anytime soon. That's because catalogs and online sales are intertwined, with catalogs serving as a tool to get customers' attention and to motivate them to make purchases, often online.
"People are using catalogs differently now than ever before. For some customers, they're still a primary shopping vehicle but that number is decreasing at a very fast rate. For a lot of people, they complement a trip to the retail store or a trip to the website," he said.
The precipitous drop in mailings followed a 23 percent average postage increase in 2007 for the category that includes standard-sized catalogs.
From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2012, catalog volume is estimated to have dropped by about 5.6 billion catalogs to about 12 billion, a decline of 32 percent, though the trend appears to be flattening, said Jonathan Leon, manager of catalogs for the U.S. Postal Service.
Some catalog companies have gone out of business. Others drastically cut back on the number of catalogs, or reduced the number of pages, or both, said Lois Brayfield, president of J. Schmid & Associates, a Kansas-based catalog marketing specialist.
And the postal service's continuing struggles will likely mean more postage increases. A week ago, the postal service reported an annual loss of a record $15.9 billion.
The lines have been blurring for years in the multi-channel retailing world.
Most big retailers are active in the three main channels: catalog, online and retail stores. They're scrambling to stay current in the online world as the number of digital devices continues to grow.
Ninety percent of consumers received catalogs and those recipients received three of them a week, on average, a survey by commissioned by the American Catalog Mailers Association last year found.
In Gorham, Falagario gets scores of them, including Cabela's and L.L. Bean. As in the heyday of the J.C. Penney and Sears catalogs, her daughters peruse the catalogs and circle the items that they like in hopes that mom and dad will buy them.
But Falagario doesn't dial the toll-free order numbers, nor does she send in the order forms. She makes all of her catalog purchases online, like a majority of catalog customers.
Falagario said she finds time to thumb through most of the catalogs, even the ones she didn't request. "I would be sad if they stop doing catalogs," she said.