Opt-out services challenge catalogers

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Catalog Choice, a new service created by the National Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the Ecology Center that lets consumers specify which catalogs they wish not to receive, made it onto the pages of several major newspapers upon its launch earlier this month. About 20,000 people have reportedly signed up for the service, opting out of receiving more than 50,000 catalogs.

Yet, the news hasn't seemed to make it onto the radars of the multichannel retail industry.

Janie Downey, executive director of the New England Mail Order Association, hadn't heard of the organization. She says via e-mail that she has not heard the service mentioned by any of her group's members.

This raises the question of whether catalogers are insensitive to environmental concerns, or if they are already taking matters into their own hands.

"It makes good sense for any mailer to be proactive regarding their mailing list," says George Hague, senior marketing strategist at catalog consultancy J. Schmid & Associates.

This is true not only from a customer relations point of view - smart retailers know not to mail to uninterested customers - but also as postal and paper costs continue to rise, Hague adds.

Sears, for example, recently brought back its Wish Book in a big book format that will be distributed to fewer customers, according to a company statement. The catalog will also be available online to encourage the use of less paper.

These efforts complement moves by catalogers, such as Williams-Sonoma, Victoria's Secret and Dell, that are using more recycled and certified virgin paper and observing the environmental impact of the vendors in their supply chain.

Services like Catalog Choice and a similar one from the DMA can augment marketer efforts. While Catalog Choice is free, the DMA service is a $1 direct mail opt-out. But, few expect enough to sign up for Catalog Choice that circulation rates will take a nose dive.

"I don't see it as an impact right now," says Jim Treis, SVP of sales and marketing at catalog printer Arandell.

While many catalogers are mailing smarter, the catalog as a marketing vehicle is here to stay, Treis adds. "The people that are getting into cataloging now that have never been in it in the past are using catalogs as a vehicle to brand themselves and to prospect."

Still, some environmental groups see direct mailers as easy targets.

This is why multichannel retailers need to have systems in place, such as a do-not-mail file, Hague cautions. He adds that direct mailers are targeted partially because of misunderstandings regarding printing, noting that a significant portion of the pulp used in printing is raised as a harvestable crop. If farmers can't plant trees for this purpose, they'd likely find something else to plant.

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