Do you realize that catalogers book some 40 percent of their annual sales in this critical fourth quarter while gift merchants take in 70 percent?

And, you know it's coming…sooner rather than later. In fact, it started in August when I received the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. L. L. Bean and Lillian Vernon quickly followed in September. You see, my household gets almost every catalog produced. The postal worker is most upset with us. I don't know if you saw some of the catalogs as yet, but L. L. Bean has a 291-page Christmas edition while J.C. Penney weighs in at 532 pages. We have to put a rather lively bit of cash in the postal worker's holiday envelope.

Now, what's this all mean? Clearly, holiday shopping is now an all-year round activity (especially when catalogs are mailed in August) and there are big bucks involved. Make no mistake about that. Consider the fact that according to the Direct Marketing Association, the catalog trade group, sales last year ended up 7.5 percent over 2000 at a tidy $72 billion. Yes, that's with a "B." Catalogers say they are looking to add another seven percent to that. Why the confidence? Well, the mailing for catalogs this year will be 16.6 billion (again, that's with a "B"). However, caution here. With postage costs having been upped by six percent, not to mention the economy and the Iraq situation, it may be difficult for catalogers to hit their numbers. What to do?

Incentives are nice. I note that many businesses are offering discounts and free shipping. For example, one chocolatier is giving discounts ranging from five percent on orders of at least $600 to 20 percent on orders of $6,000 or more. Yes, you saw that right. Now I ask you, who is ordering chocolates for $6,000? Incidentally, with Penney, although the catalog contains 2,000 gifts, at least 50 percent of them are under $50.

Although many companies are using online to encourage shoppers, there seems to be unanimity that catalogs still remain the big appeal. Actually, the ability to shop in your own house is the real appeal, no matter through catalogs or online. In mine, it is split just that way: I shop online and my wife uses catalogs.

But the catalog I most look forward to receiving is the 160-pager from Neiman Marcus. Want to know this year's most expensive item? How about a collection of original Andy Warhol paintings of 10 world-class athletes? Price is right. A measly $3 million (that's with an "M").

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