By Jack Shafer
The capitalist horn of plenty emitted a flat note last month, just 15 days before Christmas. Or, at least, that was the sheet music provided by the New York Times' Page One story "Tardy Catalogue Shoppers Risk Losing Out as Supplies Run Short" (Dec. 10, 1996).
"[T]hat Gore-Tex hat for your brother-in-law" was out of stock at L.L. Bean and Lands' End, wrote Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer. And the red silk pajama top from the Victoria's Secret catalog you had your eye on? Forget it. What's more, according to the Times, the mail-order-apparel folks were running out of all sorts of outerwear and slippers and silk undershirts and lace nightdresses just two weeks away from Christmas!
"Shoppers may find they won't be able to get what they want if they don't order this week," Steinhauer warned, sounding more like a copywriter than a newswriter. "The most popular items appear to be outerwear and all things made of fleece. But one order went completely unfilled when L.L. Bean was called on Sunday for a 'cardinal' blanket, a hat, a pair of moccasins, a silk undershirt and a Stellar Scope."
The Times story set off a panic--not among consumers--but among Steinhauer's fellow journalists. You may think of the Times as the Newspaper of Record; its competition thinks of it as the Racing Form, a national news tip sheet, and the Times' choices about what's newsworthy are automatically cribbed by those lower in the editorial food chain. During the next two weeks, CNN, NPR, the Kansas City Star, the Detroit News, USA Today, and the CBS Evening News all did variations on the Times story, flogging consumers in the service of the capitalists with alarmist to semialarmist pieces about how mail-order retailers were running out of stuff.
Joining the "Buy Now or You'll Regret It!" conspiracy was CBS News economic correspondent Ray Brady, whose derivative story aired 12 hours after the Times story hit the streets. Brady started with the "good news"--retail sales were up--but quickly uncovered the "bad news" embedded in the good news. (Economic news is like that. If somebody is making a killing, then surely somebody is dying.)
"It's getting tougher and tougher to find what you want, especially if you're shopping from catalogs," Brady said, stoking the hysteria with his report of "tight stock" at Lands' End and L.L. Bean.
Then, doing Steinhauer one better as a copywriter, Brady alerted viewers to similar shortages afflicting department stores, reporting that the shelves at Carson Pirie Scott were nearly empty! "Carson's said today, forget that last-minute stuff. Get here quick. Stocks are short. Many stores already are running tight on sizes and colors, particularly cashmere and outerwear: coats, hats, gloves."
Stocks are short! Running tight! The New York Times and CBS Evening News have reported that the taupe-and-mauve Polartec sky is falling!
Was there a great apparel shortage during Christmas 1996? Keeping her perspective through the media madness is Catherine Hartnett, spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, who says that this season marked a return to mail-order normalcy. The anomaly, as the Times story sort of acknowledges, was the downturn year of 1995, when Lands' End overordered and was left holding the excess inventory. (For some reason, Lands' End's 1995 surplus didn't spawn a "Procrastinating Catalogue Shoppers Get Whatever They Want as Late as They Want It" story in the Times.) As the Times reports, Lands' End overreacted to the bad year by ordering 20 percent less merchandise for 1996, and suffered for it.
So, once again, was there a great apparel shortage in Christmas 1996? Part of the "shortage" was pure perception. Shoppers hold mail-order firms to a higher standard than department stores when it comes to keeping things in stock, because the catalogs afford them a photo and item number for every parka, turtleneck, and blazer ever placed in inventory. When those same shoppers shop at a department store, they have no way of knowing that it has sold all of its fleece-lined garage booties or Scotchgard triple-stitched Velcro workboots unless they ask a clerk or keep notes from previous visits.
Also, the fact that mail-order retailers run out of their "most popular items" shouldn't be much of a surprise. For one thing, you define your "most popular items" by what you run out of. And for another, retailers hope to start running out of stuff two weeks before Christmas. If seasonal retailers like L.L. Bean and Lands' End kept everything in stock until Christmas Day, they'd go broke warehousing the unsold surplus or marking it down.
The mail-order "shortages" also reflect the new-found fashion consciousness of retailers like Lands' End and L.L. Bean. These companies made their mark selling sturdy commodities like chamois cloth shirts and field boots that are easy to keep in stock because the demand for them is stable from year to year. Not so with trendy new items like Lands' End's $395 "ultimate cashmere sweater." The company's CEO despaired to USA Today that he couldn't purchase enough of them to meet demand, but that he was swimming in $25 canvas Christmas totes. Good economic news, as the man once said, always comes bundled with bad.
During the Christmas season, L.L. Bean stocks about 10,000 items. On the same day the Times conspired with the forces of capitalism to herd recalcitrant consumers into buying, the company was down to about 7,000 items. As long as shoppers weren't insistent on a specific color or style, there was still enough stock on hand to keep America's Christmas trees from falling over and to clothe the Michigan and Montana militias.
And, even at this late date, there's plenty of cold-weather gear available. If you doubt that, check your mailbox for the Winter '97 sale catalogs from L.L. Bean and Lands' End and the others. The horn of plenty is still gushing Headwall jackets and Penobscot Parka Gore-Tex shells and Double L shirts and Winter Woods hand-knit sweaters and Irish wool-blend herringbone scarves.
At markdowns of up to 40 percent.