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Calendar season is upon us

In the calendar business, there is no greater truth than time is money.

For the half-billion-dollar-a-year industry, getting consumers to hang a calendar of a favorite pin-up is a battle against the clock. The cycle of the sun and moon is both a selling point and a foe.

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August signals the beginning of the retail calendar season, but come January, calendars that have been selling for $12 will command less than one-tenth of that.

The nation's two largest calendar retailers - Calendar Club and Day-by-Day Calendars - hope to sell more than 10 million calendars this year. The 4,000-plus titles range from classic Ansel Adams photographs to cheeky shots of tennis pro Anna Kournikova.

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In many areas, dozens of temporary retail outlets will open this month and next. At Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall near Chicago, two Day-by-Day Calendar stores will open on opposite ends of the complex.

Woodfield Mall general manager Marc Strich said two stores are not too much.

About 9 million shoppers come through the mall during the holiday season, and both stores do well. "They wouldn't come back year after year if they weren't popular," Strich said.

For the large bookstore chains, calendar sales have also been a boon.

"It's amazing, we have a strong calendar business that grows every year," said Matthew Coyne, district manager at Borders Books & Music in Chicago.

Though he didn't provide exact figures, Coyne said the number of calendars sold at the bookstore each year is in six figures. "We move so much volume of this stuff," he said.

Market stability - and predictability - is a plus for calendar sales. From late January through July, sales are essentially zero. But starting in August, when school is ready to begin and calendars reflect the academic year, sales steadily increase through October. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, sales soar.

But starting Dec. 26, the freefall begins. On that day, prices for almost all calendars are cut in half. By the end of January, after further reductions, calendar prices drop to $1.

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It's a risky business in which the products have a short shelf life. And if the publisher doesn't have his finger on the pulse of pop culture, today's fad becomes tomorrow's warehouse fillers.

Pop princess Britney Spears' calendars were among the industry's top sellers in 2001, said Andy Spicer, general merchandising manager at Austin, Texas-based Calendar Club. Today, she's been dethroned by SpongeBob SquarePants.

John Lash, marketing director at Calendar Club, remembers back in 1997 when the teen band Hanson rode the popularity wave with its hit single Mmmbop. "You couldn't get enough calendars in our stores," Lash said. "But by the next year, nobody cared. You couldn't give away a Hanson calendar."

His company sent back 30,000 unsold Hanson calendars to their publisher.

Calendar Club and Day-by-Day Calendars are a duopoly of sorts in the industry. Between the two, they will open nearly 1,300 calendar stores from August through January, in the form of mall kiosks and vacant retail spaces.

They are known as seasonal stores - temporary tenants, like Christmas or Halloween stores. It's an economically viable option. Despite the short sales window, seasonal stores entice impulse shoppers with topicality, so marketing and promotional costs are kept low.

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"We're not obligated to go out and advertise," Lash said. "What a mall provides for the rent is that they're delivering traffic to us."

Ellen Tolley of the National Retail Federation noted that, unlike Christmas decorations and Halloween costumes that can be reused, calendars are an item people buy year after year. They are priced affordably enough that the industry won't go through significant swings.

"There's a certain immediacy to it because people look forward to the beginning of a new season," Tolley said.

"It's still extremely popular even in these economic times."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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