The Privacy Issue Won't Go Away

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Privacy and its effect on remote shopping have been discussed extensively, not only in this newspaper but also in other trade publications and by the general news media.


The major reason for such interest in privacy is the average American's fear about the Big Brother threat - the idea that Americans' personal data are being gathered by unknown individuals/organizations and used for reasons they do not understand or control. Worse, they fear that this usage could harm them.


This fear, which most database marketers think is false, continues to grow primarily because the remote shopping industry does a poor job of defending itself and how it uses the data. Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of U.S. consumers consider this a major problem. The figure is even higher abroad.


There is some justification for this feeling. For example, how often do you hear or read about the buying of names? Everyone in remote shopping, be it a cataloger, dot-com or direct marketer, knows that this is a rental for one-time usage. But try to explain that to Joe and Jane Doe on the street. They do not get it, and neither do the vast majority of the news media. Selling a person's name - his identity - is abhorrent to most people.


While organizations such as the Direct Marketing Association have tried valiantly to alert remote shopping companies to this problem and lobby hard in Washington and state capitals nationwide against restrictions, they are almost a lone voice.


The majority of remote shopping companies do little to fight this problem or even support the DMA. The reason for this apparent indifference is puzzling. If some of the more draconian privacy measures come to be, they will have a major effect on every company and, for many, cause their demise.


There are two major things that can be done by all in remote shopping to balance the negative aspects and spin on this issue, realizing the industry will never entirely win the battle of using a person's name.


First, there are companies that, for their own gain, will violate the privacy of consumers. These bad apples always will exist and always will make any defense of the renting and data collection practices a difficult one. So what can catalogers, both the traditional and the new ones coming from the dot-com world, do to prevent becoming so circumscribed that many go out of business? Here are four actions that all companies should take:


• First and foremost, be more diligent in scrutinizing the practices of the companies to whom you rent your names. A simple way is to clearly define your privacy principles, then make your list manager and the renting list brokers certify that each prospective renter's policies and practices support your principles on this issue. What good does it do to gain a few dollars in list rental income today if tomorrow you are forced into an opt-in policy?


• Support the DMA whether or not you are a member. A unified front consisting of all companies adhering to consistent practices is one of the best ways to stop more onerous regulations. Thus, even if, for whatever reason, you are unwilling to belong to the DMA, it behooves all remote shopping companies to find out the DMA's recommended policies and adopt them.


• Be more forthright with your customers. Remember, you are someone else's customer. You would want that company to treat your personal information with great care and protect you from any unscrupulous use of it. So if you wish that for yourself, is it surprising that your customers want it from you? Hopefully, your company has good practices in place; spell them out to your customers. They will respect you and become better customers if they trust you. Honesty never caused a company to fail.


• Collect only data that you can use, and not a wish list. When you collect the data, if they are not used after a period of time, have a system to purge them. If you are selling cookware, what value is there in knowing the number and ages of the children in a family? Consumers say to themselves, "What is this for?" They certainly will not assume the company wants this information so it can start a children's catalog. All it does is raise concerns about too much information being gathered. (I hasten to add that I am unaware of any cooking catalog that is collecting children's ages from customers.)


The threat of restrictions on the collection and usage of data is not an idle one. Nor is it something cooked up by radicals or ultraliberals. This issue cuts across all political strata. This is a major motivator behind the right-wing militia types as well as those on the far left.


Finally, there always has been a sense among consumers that corporations have only one goal: to make a profit. If this includes abusing their customers and workers, they will do it. Therefore, the industry enters this battle encumbered with not only the fear by customers and prospects that they will lose their privacy but also the distrust of corporate motives.


Thus, every remote shopping company needs to be active on this issue and not leave it for the next person to solve. This is as important as the next circulation plan.


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