Barbra Streisand buys her records from the Horchow catalogue. Princess Grace of Monaco just ordered, among other things, four rope ladders. Robert Redford bought bug killers and wooden plates for his Utah home. And last year alone, some 950,000 people purchased everything from weather vanes to pillowcases through Roger Horchow's mail-order business.
Roger Horchow, the mogul of mail order, who grosses $38 million annually via three mail and telephoned order catalogues, was in Washington yesterday, talking not only about the things he sells, but about the blunders he has made along the way. Horchow has written about them in his book, "Elephants in Your Mailbox" (Times Books), which, by the way, he is also offering through his catalogue for $12.50. And he has just put into the mail another glossy booklet to sell off his mistakes at discount. The booklet is called "Grand Finale." He calls it "the Filene's Basement of mail order."
For Horchow, 52, the blunders came first. He remembers trying to earn pin money at age 9 by selling door-to-door. "I liked pineapples, and so I figured pineapple seeds would be a big success," he recalled yesterday. He wondered why no one was buying them until one perspective customer informed him. "You can't grow pineapples in Columbus, Ohio."
He wasn't any more successful selling Christmas cards in a Jewish neighborhood. But he did better selling subscriptions to Jack and Jill.
His blunders are more expensive now. Like the $150 pumpkin-shaped ice bucket he bought from a German baron he met at a party. When he showed the sample at one of his meetings, an observer commented, "My God, it won't even hold one tray if ice." It never turned out to be a big problem for customers, since they bought very few.
Then there was a hand-wrought iron candlestick he found beautiful and well worth the $250 price tag. "I apparently was the only one to think it beautiful. We had 25 and sold only one -- which was returned," Horchow said, laughing.
He can laugh about the blunders, of course, because of the winners. Like the clear glass dessert bowl and plate sets. He offered the six-piece set (six bowls, six plates) in the original catalogue for $6, and it is still popular nine years later at $16. He has sold more than 100,000 sets to date.
And there is the grease mop his mother-in-law found in a hardware store in Little Rock . . . he has sold about 25,000 of them. His wife, Caroline, was sure the long-handled feather duster would never sell. "Your grandfather had one like that," she teased. But Horchow was sure it was a winner. "We had cobwebs on the ceiling we could never reach," he said. So far, he's sold about 50,000 of them.
While he has sold more than $100,000 worth of Diane von Furstenberg knit dresses and 600 Halston Ultrasuede dresses (plus more Ultrasuede styles by Mollie Parnis), clothes are not a big hit in the catalogue generally. He had expected women to snap up the oversized, one-size-fits-all styles, but to the contrary, more than one-third of all those sold were returned. "Women just weren't sure of what to do with them or how they should look in them. They are more secure in things that fit well," he concluded. He expects a lacy blouse by Albert Nipon coming in the next catalogue to be a big seller.
Horchow's ground rule for putting anything in the catalogue is: Are there 25 people he can personally think of who could use it? Some of the items in the catalogues are those he has seen othe people use or heard them wish they owned. Some have been sent to him by the manufacturers, others he has just bumped into. Like the silk flowers he saw on his last trip to the Madison Hotel ("silk flowers don't try to look real, just look pretty, so they sell") or the hot water thermos he had in his hotel room on a buying trip to Shanghai. Actually it wasn't the thermos itself, but the idea of packaging soups and other instant foods for travelers to China that developed from that visit, along with the antique jewelry brought in the warehouses there.
Some items in his catalogues have become victims of front-page headlines. Since the Russian moves in Afghanistan and the Olympic boycott, Horchow hasn't been able to sell stacked wooden Russian dolls. Other things get trapped because of scientific advances. When soft contact lenses became popular, for example, Horchow was stuck with 20,000 hard contact lens cases that he finally sold by reducing them from $20 to $1.
One item he is sure will sell next season is a canvas shopping bag with a slogan thought up by his daughter, Regen: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."
The appeal of catalogue sales -- his and all the others -- has to do with the convenience of shopping from your own living room, he says. Seventy percent of his customers are women, and most of those women work. "Some live within two blocks of stores," he says, but simply don't have time for shopping. w
Horchow, who on his Washington visit was wearing a tie, socks, belt and underwear from his own catalogue, likes the surprise of getting things he has ordered from other catalogues. He recently ordered four no-logo polo shirts from a competitor, and the first two have arrived in separate packages. "I keep wondering what color will come next," he says.
The mail the mogul of mail order gets is sometimes amusing. One consumer asked about ordering the elephant modeling an elephant ladder he was selling for $750. (Another customer suggested that the ladder must be so expensive because the elephant was included.) No, responded the customer service adviser at the time, there was no room for elephants in the mailbox. Otherwise, Horchow just might have considered it for his next catalogue.