"In Europe, Japan and Mexico, we're seeing more dual-career households and people have less time for traditional shopping," said Maxwell Sroge, a Chicago-based catalog consultant. "Catalogs are fitting the need for convenience overseas just like they do in the U.S."
Building on slow-growing demand, major U.S. catalogers tinkering with international strategies include Lands' End, J.C. Penney Co., Spiegel's Eddie Bauer division, L.L. Bean and Hanover Direct.
Little advertising has been done to date in the companies' evolving international strategies.
In most cases, they're striving to offer same-language catalogs that feature merchandise similar to what's sold in the U.S. Many include toll-free phone numbers, local distribution and two-day delivery.
"Outside of the U.S., it's less common for people to order merchandise by mail, but as these systems become more widespread, international audiences are getting comfortable with them. It's catching on," said Mr. Sroge, whose consulting work with overseas clients is also booming.
So far, Dodgeville, Wis.-based Lands' End has made the biggest play overseas, opening a full-service catalog facility in the U.K. last year that's already generating about 10% of its $870 million in annual sales.
This fall, Lands' End will roll nationally in Japan with a catalog printed in Japanese and prices in yen, said Public Relations Director Charlotte LaComb.
Meanwhile, Dallas-based J.C. Penney has set its sights on Mexico and next year will offer its first catalog there, including a broad range of apparel and home furnishings in Spanish. The No. 1 cataloger will also open its first seven stores in Mexico.
"Mexico is rich with opportunity; it's nearby and the economy is growing and has stabilized. We know from our experience with U.S. border communities that it's ripe for growth," said Duncan Muir, Penney's manager of financial public relations.
No. 2 cataloger Spiegel, Downers Grove, Ill., is using Eddie Bauer to test foreign turf. Last year, Spiegel successfully tested an Eddie Bauer catalog insert inside an established German catalog, and this year a standalone version is planned for Germany. Spiegel is owned by Germany-based Otto Versand GmbH & Co.
There will also be a mass mailing of Japanese-language catalogs in Japan. Eddie Bauer will open its first Japanese store in Tokyo. Two more will open before yearend.
Outdoor equipment and apparel cataloger L.L. Bean, Freeport, Maine, has been mailing catalogs to countries all over the world "for years," though it doesn't offer same-language books or local distribution facilities overseas, a spokeswoman said. The company's international business has grown 73% in the past year.
Growth in L.L. Bean's Japanese business in particular has prompted the company recently to add Japanese-language ordering instructions to catalogs there, she said.
Newcomer Hanover Direct, Weehawken, N.J., plans to go after international customers with several of its 14 apparel and gift catalogs later this year.
"With new technology, faxes and satellites to beam information around the world instantly," Mr. Sroge said, "boundaries are disappearing, and international markets are wide open to U.S. catalogers."