In the average U.S. household's mail, you can count an average of 87 mail order catalogs per year. Yes, mail order has become a way of life for Americans--191.5 million shopped by mail in 1995, according to the Direct Marketing Association, buying everything from lingerie to gardening supplies. And now, because the much-needed service exists, more and more mail order shoppers are buying prescription drugs, vitamins, fitness gear, diet aids and other health-care products from the comfort of their homes and offices.
According to John Schulte, chair of the National Mail Order Association (NMOA), the mail order health-care industry's annual growth rate of 10 percent to 12 percent helped push sales to $6.1 billion in 1996. And that growth rate is expected to remain steady. That's a good prognosis for the 560-plus mail order companies--many of which are small businesses--that currently specialize in the health-care sector, as well as for entrepreneurs who are entering the field.
What's giving the health-care sector such a shot in the arm? Schulte cites all the usual reasons shoppers choose mail order over retail, such as convenience and privacy. But he adds that the graying of America is the major impetus. "As the population ages, there is more need for health-care products," he says. "And seniors have higher levels of income and don't like going out as much, which makes them a prime target for mail order."
Frances Huffman, a freelance writer in Pacific Palisades, California, is a former senior editor for Entrepreneur.