Let's Set the Record Straight

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CHICAGO -- Many of you missed a good show last week, as the Direct Marketing Association's fall conference turned out better than most of us expected.

All that despite anthrax and the gloomy headlines in the media; the Chicago Tribune summed things up with "Direct Hit on Direct Mail Industry." The DMA was forced to play cleanup for much of the show, culminating with four of its biggest catalogers -- Fingerhut, Lands' End, J. Jill and Newport News -- headlining a press conference to dispel some of the anthrax inaccuracies and direct mail.

The executives discussed security measures at their facilities as well as at their printers. They talked about mailings that have already gone out and predictions for the holiday season, but it seemed like the reporters from ABC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among others, didn't want to accept their assessment that the holidays will be OK.

"We have a lot of sophisticated ways to measure response, and we have seen nothing [suggesting a decline] specifically," said Newport News' George D. Ittner.

Those sentiments were echoed in a DMA white paper also released last week. So far, anthrax has had no effect on response rates, according to member companies that participated in an informal survey Oct. 22-26. For the most part, marketers attending the conference didn't seem too concerned either. Agencies said a few clients were testing postcards and foldouts, but no one has canceled any large-scale mailings. A printer said one nonprofit had held a solicitation that was already printed.

The variable in all this, according to the white paper, is public pressure fueled by press coverage, which "could cause the USPS to overreact, implementing measures that would limit access to certain markets during the critical pre-holiday period." This uncertainty was noticeable in the questions being asked at the press conference. The panelists spent a great deal of time correcting misperceptions put forth by the media and called on Congress to quickly enact legislation to help the U.S. Postal Service resolve the situation. A great deal of work lies ahead for all of us.

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