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AVOID CATALOG CATASTROPHES THAT CAN DIM THE HOLIDAYS

SHARE AVOID CATALOG CATASTROPHES THAT CAN DIM THE HOLIDAYS

Deck the halls with millions of mail-order catalogs.

During the holiday season, it seems Americans receive almost as many catalogs in the mail as they do greeting cards. These colorful publications feature gifts aplenty for 1989.There are solid gold golf putters from Austad's. London "bobby" whistles at Land's End. Nightshirts at L.L. Bean. His-and-her Western clothing and riding gear from Nieman Marcus. Magnetic picture frames from Lillian Vernon. Fancy fruit from Harry & David.

Included in the Victoria's Secret lingerie catalog is a postcard on which the recipient can write down her size and preferred garment, to be sent off to the loved one expected to buy her that gift for Christmas. Spiegel Inc. has a Christmas shopping guide with gift selections by Candice Bergen, star of TV's "Murphy Brown."

Filling out an order form or phoning a toll-free number is considerably easier than slugging it out at the local shopping mall. As a result, more than 90 million Americans are expected to shop by mail or telephone in 1989, placing well over $30 billion in catalog orders.

It's an immense business. Land's End, for example, adds 2,000 workers during Christmas season to handle orders.

At the risk of putting a damper on this yuletide enthusiasm, I recommend some caution:

The large number of new entrants in the catalog field, particularly smaller firms offering highly specialized items, means a shakeout is likely in which some companies won't make it. Find out if the company you order with is viable and likely to deliver.

Seven out of 10 orders are now made by telephone through 800 (toll-free) numbers rather than by mail. Greater use of credit card numbers for these purchases dictates a careful attitude on the part of the consumer. Don't give your card number to just anyone.

Catalog companies have become incredibly fast, many with two- or three-day turnarounds from order to delivery. This year more than 150 catalog companies, making use of Federal Express and United Parcel Service, are offering quick delivery of gifts ordered as late as the week before Christmas. Nonetheless, avoid making down-to-the-wire purchases, since this does increase the possibility that the item you wish is out of stock.

"Make sure you know who you're dealing with before you order anything or give your credit card number out," warned Keith Mead, director of operations for the Better Business Bureau in Arlington, Va. "In addition, there have been complaints about some less-reputable companies shipping older items than those the customer thought he was ordering."

Everyone's heard of Sears Roebuck, J.C. Pen-ney, Spiegel and similarly well-known catalogs, but others aren't so easy to track. Any company you aren't sure about should be checked out with the Better Business Bureau, the postal inspector or local consumer protection agencies.

Read the catalog carefully. Find out if merchandise is offered on a satisfaction-guaranteed or money-back basis. Determine whether shipping costs are included in the price. Keep careful records. Examine the items received.

"Be careful when filling out an order form, read all customer service information on it and always include a daytime phone number," said Lisa Caugherty, director of the New York-based Shop-at-Home Center. "Expect good, solid service."

The Federal Trade Commission's Mail Order Rule requires that companies ship merchandise within the time they promise, or, if they don't state a time, within 30 days. If there's a shipping delay, the rule requires that the company notify the customer of the delay, giving him the option of agreeing to the delay or canceling the order. If he cancels, the company must give full refund within seven working days after it receives the cancellation notice.

Beware of exaggerated claims for products or unrealistically low prices for merchandise.