Catalog opt-out programs spark debate

L.L. Bean and more than 200 other catalog merchants are using Catalog Choice as part of their overall strategy to respond to customers’ mail preferences. With more consumers expressing concern about the amount of direct mail delivered to their mailboxes, the number of mail preference services has grown. However there is debate in the community over which service best serves marketers’ interests.

Since the nonprofit organization, which is sponsored by the Ecology Center of Berkeley, launched in October more than 900,000 people have opted out of receiving more than 11 million catalogs, according to April Smith, Catalog Choice’s project manager.

“We think that [Catalog Choice is] a great benefit both to our customers and to us – to the bottom line and to the environment,” said Carolyn Beem, manager of public affairs for L.L. Bean.

Despite the benefits Catalog Choice may provide, Beem stressed that L.L. Bean tries to accommodate its customers through its own systems. “That’s always our first preference is to talk directly to them — so that we can understand what they want and what their concerns are.”

That sentiment was repeated by the Direct Marketing Association, which has offered a mail preference service to consumers for more than 38 years, according to Sue Geramian, SVP, communications, media and PR at the DMA. Last year, the service, which can be accessed at, prevented 930 million mailings, she said.

“We don’t encourage anyone to get in between the cataloger and the customer,” Geramian said. “We don’t think it’s good for the consumer or the merchant.” Geramian described the DMAChoice as the “official preference service of the catalog community and supported by the US Postal Service.”

“I don’t think [Catalog Choice] is in conflict with mailers’ desire to reach customers through direct mail,” Beem said. “I just think this makes us more responsible and thoughtful as to how we are mailing.”

Beem confirmed that L.L. Bean also uses the DMA’s preference service. However, Larry O’Connor, CEO of Other World Computing, and Andrew Chane, VP of Tools for Wellness, said that they did not use DMA Choice but did use Catalog Choice.

“It helps with our postage costs, which as you know, have done nothing but go up and become more of a challenge over the last year or so to really manage,” said Chane. “We certainly don’t want to keep mailing to people that aren’t interested in what we’re about.”

Most of the people who have opted out of receiving the Tools for Wellness catalog were prospect names who would have only been mailed once anyway, Chane said. “But those folks don’t know that.”

“Catalog Choice was a good option for our eco-conscious customers out there was well as people who just don’t want any sort of printed material regardless,” said O’Connor. He added that Other World Computing collects data from Catalog Choice a couple of weeks before it sends out a catalog. “We’ve had no issues with the data that they’ve provided us either.”

Both Other World Computing and Tools for Wellness said they feature the Catalog Choice logo on their Web site and in their catalogs. It’s a way to show consumers that Tools for Wellness is concerned about the environment and about wasting catalogs and other resources, Chane said.

Although consumers’ response to the service has been very positive, there has been a lot of “misconceptions and speculations” expressed by the direct mail industry about Catalog Choice, said Smith during a conference call with reporters on June 4.

During the call, Smith stressed that Catalog Choice was not out to “hurt” the catalog industry. “We embrace the industry’s goal to self regulate and we think that Catalog Choice is a very important voluntary program that can help catalogers achieve this goal,” Smith said. “We’re here to broker a dialogue and give mailers more opportunities to communicate to their mail recipients.”

When Catalog Choice first launched, it was the only free, title specific mail preference service, said Chuck Teller, Catalog Choice’s executive director during the conference call. Since then the DMA has upgraded its service, which is now free.

Unlike the DMA preference service, Catalog Choice is independent of the direct marketing industry, Teller said. “So people trust us and our intensions,” he said. In addition, Catalog Choice’s service extends beyond DMA membership, he added.

According to Catalog Choice, 41% of consumers who chose to opt out of receiving a specific catalog said that they want to help the environment and 37% said they had no interest in the products advertised. About 15% said they preferred to shop online.

So far, about 39 merchants have said they do not want to participate, although some are reconsidering, Teller said. Both Teller and Smith speculated that these catalogers might have been encouraged not to participate by the DMA.

The DMA’s position is that it is not telling its members not to participate with Catalog Choice, said Donn Rappaport, chairman and CEO of the American List Counsel Inc. and chairman of the DMA Board of Directors. However, the DMA is advising its members to ask Catalog Choice some very important questions before deciding to work with its service. For example, he asked, why does Catalog Choice insist on retaining the names of people who have signed up for the service? Rappaport said that the DMA had met with Catalog Choice to talk about ways that the two organizations could work together, but discussions broke down over this issue.

The DMA is concerned that Catalog Choice might use the names to raise funds for environmental groups that are pushing do not mail legislation, Rappaport said. “The concern is they’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing or they’re a Trojan horse and a catalog that works with them is contributing to their potential demise,” he said.

During the conference call, Smith stressed that Catalog Choice cannot sell or rent the names it collects through its service. She added that the service also provides merchants with the opportunity to communicate with people who chose to opt out of receiving catalogs.

Beem confirmed that L.L. Bean contacts customers directly to insure that the information provided by Catalog Choice is accurate. “Our customers are very important to us and we obviously want to keep our customers — so we do offer them options.” Those options include entering into electronic relationships or receiving fewer catalogs, Beem added.


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