You've got a great product you know will sell faster than hotcakes at a pancake breakfast. But how do you get it to your customers if you aren't interested in opening a storefront to sell it? The modern, convenient and increasingly profitable way: through the mail.
According to estimates furnished by Maxwell Sroge, president of Maxwell Sroge Co., a mail order business consultancy firm in Evanston, Illinois, the mail order marketplace more than doubled between 1991 and 1996, rising from $180.66 billion to $413.22 billion in annual sales.
The numbers don't lie: Mail order is an attractive start-up opportunity for the entrepreneur of the '90s, says John Schulte, chairman of the Minneapolis-based National Mail Order Association (NMOA). "One of the most cost-effective ways to launch a business is using mail order methods," Schulte says. "You've got to have a specific niche, though--an area that's too small for big companies. Your product should have an easy-to-identify audience that's easy to reach and sufficient in numbers to support you."
A culinary enthusiast, Jim Blair found his own niche in the industry. He received a Mexican cookbook as a gift, but found the spices he needed for the unique cuisine difficult to find near his Avalon, New Jersey, home. He often found himself driving 80 miles or more to find the particular chile peppers or marinades he needed for his recipes.
"I thought, `Maybe I can supply other people who are in the same boat,' " Blair recalls. "I inquired at a Mexican grocery store if they would sell to me at a discount so I could afford to resell the merchandise, and they agreed."
Blair first placed an advertisement in an epicurean magazine. "The ad was costly, and very little happened," he says. "It suddenly occurred to me the way to go wasn't to buy advertising space, because we couldn't afford it, but rather to get free PR from publications that were looking for information to fill their pages."
Blair compiled an information packet describing the Mexican products he stocked, and mailed it out to newspapers and regional magazines he thought might be interested in CMC Co., the exotic spice catalog he started in 1988. "The New York Times picked it up right away," he says. "We got hundreds of phone calls requesting copies of our catalog. We've pursued that mode of publicizing our products ever since, and as a result, we're now mentioned as a source in perhaps half a dozen cookbooks, and, periodically, various epicurean magazines--including Martha Stewart Living."