In-Home Dates vs. Mail Dates… What is the Best Strategy?

Some catalogers prefer mailings that are based on in-home dates. Other use mail dates. From my experience, many times, there is confusion over which strategy to employ and why. Some catalogers tend to use these terms interchangeably while significant differences exist between the two methods. Over the years, some of the larger printers have pushed and stressed the use of in-home dates but is this really the best mailing strategy for you from a marketing point of view? This month we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of both. We will also provide guidance regarding which mailing strategy is right for you.

First of all, let’s define an in-home date and a mail date. An in-home date occurs when the majority of the catalogs being mailed hit in-home within a three-day window. When a mailing takes place, the printer will stagger the distribution by day so that approximately 90% of the total mailing reaches all customers and prospects within three days of each other. A customer living in California will receive his or her catalog within three days of someone living in New York, for example. Mail dates are defined, as the day the mailing is to begin. The mailing generally takes place over a five-day period (if in a mail pool drop-ship program) beginning on the specified date. When in-home dates are used, the printer determines the actual release date of the mail. When mail dates are used, the cataloger specifies these dates. RULE: Whichever method you prefer, i.e., in-home vs. mail dates, be consistent. Use one method or the other and stick with it. Do not switch back and forth.

Let’s review how a printer’s mail distribution plans works when in-home dates are used and when mail dates are preferred.  When mail dates are used (essentially an east-to-west distribution), The Dingley Press in Lisbon, Maine, for example, begin their pool shipments on Monday and run through Friday or Saturday of that week. Therefore catalogs may leave for Boston on Monday but trucks do not depart for California until Friday which means that catalogs would ultimately be delivered over a longer period of time (the Boston mail and the California mail would probably arrive in home about 10 days apart). When in-home dates are used, Dingley would start on a Friday and send the mail to the west coast first. For example, if they had an in-home date of November 4 to 6, they would begin on Friday, October 24 and mail throughout the next week. The Boston mail would be released on Friday, October 31 so that the west coast and east coast mail would get in-home at approximately the same time. This is how they attempt to “hit” the in-home window as requested by the catalog company.

The most significant difference between in-home dates and mail dates has to do with the pace of the order volume that will result from each. When in-home dates are used, the order curve will peak more sharply and generally die-off more rapidly. Distributing catalogs using mail dates tend to cause the order curve to be flatter. There is still a peak, of course, but that order spike is not as pronounced and the order line is longer compared to when in-home dates are used. So why does this even matter? The use of in-home dates can cause call center staffing issues. When the order curve is more pronounced, additional people are needed during a shorter period of time to handle the volume of in-coming calls. What’s more, the call volume will tend to decrease at a faster rate which means you could be in an over staffed position (unless you mail more frequently as discussed later). Please refer to the graph. Here we have plotted the typical order curve for a mailer who uses in-home dates vs. a cataloger using mail dates. Note the differences in the curve and the “peak” day for each.

Here is a summary of the important points to consider when deciding whether to use in-home dates or mail dates:

  1. When in-home dates are used the vast majority catalogs mailed will arrive in-home within a 3-day window (90% of the time) regardless of location.
  2. When mail dates are used catalogs will be delivered over a 10 day period causing more of a spreading effect.
  3. Additional phone center labor may be needed to handle the rush of in-coming calls if in-home dates are used.
  4. If you mail at least once per month, using in-home dates can help maintain proper spacing between drops.
  5. The use of in-home dates can lengthen the catalog production schedule.
  6. Stay consistent and do not switch back and forth from in-home dates to mail dates.

As a final measure, you might want to consider using a mail monitoring service to track the actual in-home dates of your mailings.  It is recommended that you subscribe to a mail monitoring service.  This type of service will monitor how long it takes your catalog to reach different cities throughout the Country. “Decoy” names are seeded into your mail streams by your service bureau to 25 cities or more. In addition to your own mailings, we also recommend you “seed” your entire lists every time it is rented and used by another mailer. This will enable you to verify mail dates, offers and the mail piece itself (if you request the piece be returned to you by the mail monitor service). There are several mail monitoring services to choose from. We have had excellent performance from Hauser List Services. Their reports can easily be accessed via the Internet. In addition to report delivery times by city, they also comment on the condition of the catalog when it arrives in-home, i.e., mint, good, fair and poor. Shown below is an example of a typical Hauser report:

Hauser List Services
IN HOME WINDOW: 07/31/03 OFFER: Company Name
DROP DATES: 07/21/03
QUINCY MA 02169 07/21/03 08/02/03 12 N/A GOOD
DIX HILLS NY 11746 07/21/03 08/01/03 11 N/A GOOD
BUFFALO NY 14206 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
TELFORD PA 18969 07/21/03 08/01/03 11 N/A GOOD
FAIRFAX STATION VA 22039 07/21/03 08/04/03 14 N/A GOOD
RALEIGH NC 27614 07/21/03 N/A N/A
LOGANVILLE GA 30052 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
BOCA RATON FL 33433 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
MEMPHIS TN 38122 07/21/03 N/A N/A
CINCINNATI OH 45247 07/21/03 N/A N/A
RIVER ROUGE MI 48218 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
BONDURANT IA 50035 07/21/03 08/02/03 12 N/A GOOD
MILWAUKEE WI 53204 07/21/03 08/02/03 12 N/A MINT
MAPLEWOOD MN 55119 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
WESTCHESTER IL 60154 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
HOUSE SPRINGS MO 63051 07/21/03 08/02/03 12 N/A GOOD
INDEPENDENCE MO 64055 07/21/03 07/30/03 9 N/A GOOD
TULSA OK 74127 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
HOUSTON TX 77006 07/21/03 07/29/03 8 N/A GOOD
LITTLETON CO 80123 07/21/03 08/02/03 12 N/A MINT
LEHI UT 84043 07/21/03 07/30/03 9 N/A GOOD
SCOTTSDALE AZ 85251 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD
LAKEWOOD CA 90713 07/21/03 07/30/03 9 N/A GOOD
MENLO PARK CA 94025 07/21/03 07/30/03 9 N/A GOOD
SEATTLE WA 98117 07/21/03 07/31/03 10 N/A GOOD



In summary, the use of in-home dates vs. mail dates is not so much the issue. It is more important to remain consistent using one method or the other. If you prefer mail dates, be certain your printer follows the same mail release plan each and every time. Dropping catalogs based upon using a mail date for small and medium sized catalogs can be more efficient than using in-home dates. This is due to the fact that mail dates tend to “spread” the orders and call volume over a longer period of time making the call center easier to manager. This method can also reduce labor cost. If your merchandising offer is not time sensitive and exact in-home dates are not critical, mailing catalogs based on a mail date is the way to go. Again, if you mail monthly or even more frequently to your house file, using in-home dates would be preferred since spacing between drops becomes shorter. Using in-home dates helps control potential overlap when there are mailings that are really close together. Be certain you are using the right method for the right reasons!