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A new chapter for catalogs

If your mailbox is stuffed with catalogs, that's what the catalog retailers want to see this holiday season.

More catalog retailers like L.L. Bean, of Freeport, Maine, are moving toward the day when the bulk of their sales are made online. Yet the number of catalogs mailed to U.S. households has been climbing over the past couple of years.

Even though some will get tossed, catalog retailers are counting on consumers thumbing through enough of them to drive sales.

L.L. Bean expects to ship 50-million more catalogs this year than it did two years ago, when it shipped 200-million catalogs.

"It is the best way for us to get lasting impressions in front of our customers," said spokesman Rich Donaldson. Most customers hang on to the catalogs for weeks, using them for reference, making catalogs far more valuable than television, radio and Web-based marketing and advertising, all of which Bean also does, Donaldson said.

At L.L. Bean, which expects to finish the year 4 percent ahead of last year, the gears are turning as the company shifts into holiday mode.

The 635,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center where items are shipped is abuzz with activity and the beeps of electric-powered trucks.

Overhead, conveyors carry flannel shirts, boots and other merchandise; below, workers pack the items after they slide down chutes.

The days of people questioning the future of catalogs are long gone, and more companies are using them. Even bricks-and-mortar stores like Toys "R" Us and online auction house eBay have begun shipping out catalogs in recent years.

Those who predicted the demise of catalogs as online sales took off a few years back overlooked a key fact: You can't make sales if you can't reach your customers. Thus, L.L. Bean and others can't afford to cut back on catalogs.

Overall, catalog distribution has grown to 19.2-billion in 2005 from 16.6-billion in 2002, according to the Direct Marketing Association. The typical American will receive 13 of them this year, DMA spokeswoman Laura Colona said from New York.

L.L. Bean decided to boost its catalog shipments even though its online sales will officially overtake catalog sales next month. And it doesn't come cheap. Catalogs cost roughly 60 cents each to produce and mail, Donaldson said.

Catalog companies like Bean report seeing a spike in online orders when their catalogs are shipped out. Bean's research shows that 50 to 70 percent of online sales are actually driven by the catalogs.