Catalog Overload Presents Seasonal 'Green' Dilemma


WASHINGTON (November 23, 2010)—The glut of catalogs in consumers' mailboxes this season has created a dilemma for shoppers who want to go green and help the economy.

Although the number of people who do holiday shopping by catalog is falling—15 percent in 2010, down from 20 percent in 2007, according to the National Retail Federation—catalogs remain a prominent marketing tool, and they proliferate around the Christmas holiday.

"(Catalog companies) rely heavily on the fourth quarter," said Paul Miller, vice president and deputy director of the American Catalog Mailers Association. "Some rely on it for 80 percent or more of their annual sales."

The role of the catalog has changed with the rise of the Internet but, "catalogs still play a vital role in spurring sales online," Miller said, and "people love to receive catalogs."

But privacy and green advocacy groups are pushing back.

"It's a high-volume time," said Chuck Teller, founder of Catalog Choice, an organization that allows customers to opt-out of receiving catalogs by company. He estimates that of 100 billion direct mail marketing pieces sent every year, 19 billion are catalogs. "There's a lot more that come right now. The books start dropping in the first or second week of October and it'll go all the way to right before Christmas."

Teller's take on catalogs is pretty much summed up in the name of his organization, Catalog Choice: "Our perspective is that the consumer needs—deserves—to have a choice regarding the kind of marketing materials that come into their home. If the consumer wants, they should have the right to go paperless."

But, if consumers go green, it could leave many catalogers in the red. Advertising mail spurs $702 billion in increased sales, Direct Marketing Association research shows. Every dollar companies spend on direct mail marketing results in $12 in sales, according to the U.S. Postal Service.

There's no doubt that direct mail marketing is effective. Eight out of 10 consumers read or scan advertising mail, according to the Direct Marketing Association. And holiday spending still hasn't bounced back to 2007 levels, leading some to believe we shouldn't be encouraging consumers to opt out of receiving catalogs and similar marketing mail.

"You've got a lot of activist organizations who are saying, 'Save the trees,'" said Don Libey, whose consulting company specializes in direct marketing and catalogs. "They go into schools and convince the kids to opt-out and they tell their parents and grandparents. They say 'take us off 40 catalogs.' The activist organization is attempting to make the decision for the consumer and sometimes consumers miss those catalogs."

One of those "save-the-trees" activists is Catalog Cancelling Challenge, started by a fourth-grade teacher in New Hampshire. The challenge has helped students cancel more than 42,000 of their parent's unwanted catalogs using Teller's Catalog Choice website.

"People have had enough," Teller said, adding that he helped process more than 150,000 opt-outs last week.

But some Marylanders do find catalogs useful.

While Catherine Mabry of Gaithersburg said she ignores the catalogs she receives, her daughters like them. "My daughters go through them," and make Christmas lists and then Mabry shops online.

"This time of year it's fun," to get catalogs said Andi Gibbons of Chevy Chase. "I like getting them, but not double," she said, expressing frustration over receiving catalogs at work and at home. There are some, too, she said that she would like to cancel.

Helen Casteel of Silver Spring called the catalogs she receives "helpful," and especially enjoys shopping out of the Pottery Barn and West Elm catalogs.

"There are still people who like to receive catalogs," Libey said.

But it can be hard to isolate the catalogs a consumer likes to receive because of the practice of "renting" customer lists to other catalog companies.

"It's an age old practice," Miller said. "Some consumers get offended. Others don't and say if they don't want (the catalog) they recycle it. It's something catalog companies handle responsibly. They always offer the opportunity to discontinue these things."

"It's like a virus," Teller said, "With some companies it's okay, but with some it just spreads."

For Teller, it's simple: "If I don't want it, you shouldn't send it to me."

But on this point—call it the spirit of goodwill and holiday cheer—the groups can all agree.

Catalogers would "prefer not to send the catalog to someone with no interest," Libey said.

That's true, say others in the direct marketing industry. The Direct Marketing Association offers a service similar to Catalog Choice's where consumers can opt-out of catalogs they don't want. As to why the association wants to offer consumers the opportunity to manage their mail, the website states that "we know that for direct marketing to remain successful, marketers must maintain a healthy relationship with consumers.

"There's a balance to be struck between the usefulness of this as a marketing tool," Teller said, "and the fact that people want to live a greener life, and from a privacy aspect, people want to have control over their name and address."

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