Expecting Slow Fall, Mailers Eye Retention

An uncertain economy and the recent postal rate increase are key factors in what is expected to be a slow fall mailing season.

“Overall, we'll be mailing slightly less mail,” said Andrew C. Goldberg, president/chief operating officer of Publishers Clearing House, Port Washington, NY. “Our active customer volume is actually up, but the volume in our prospecting programs is down by a bit [because of] list availability issues and the recent postal increase.”

Debbie Koopman, a spokeswoman for The Spiegel Group Inc., Downers Grove, IL, said circulation could be reduced as much as 20 percent for the company's Newport News and Spiegel brands. Eddie Bauer circulation, however, is scheduled to stay the same. All of Spiegel's brands are focusing “more on retention than on acquisition this season,” she said.

The U.S. Postal Service said it expects mail volume to drop below 2001's level.

“We are planning at last year's level and encouraging mailers to mail, but we are expecting less than what we saw last year. The economy just doesn't support that,” said Paul Vogel, vice president of network operations management at the USPS.

Despite the traditional Labor Day-to-Thanksgiving spike, “after the smoke clears, we will see a decrease this year … and that's a reversal of a real long-term trend,” said H. Robert Wientzen, president/CEO of the Direct Marketing Association. “If the economy continues to worsen, then it's anybody's guess as to what may happen. We may see even lower volumes.”

Year-to-date, there are 6 billion fewer pieces in the mail stream than last year, Wientzen said, and 3.5 billion pieces of that mail can be attributed to direct mail.

Mailers are looking to economize any way they can.

“They are doing things like using slightly lighter paper, and page counts are being reduced in catalogs,” Wientzen said. “I even talked to somebody who is looking at the amount of ink they use.”

Though Publishers Clearing House has not cut back on the quality of its package components, “we are working closely with our print vendors to identify ways that PCH can become more cost-efficient,” Goldberg said.

Several mailers are using new market segmentation tools.

“We are definitely targeting our mail pieces better via ongoing enhancements to our statistical selection models and via affinity mailings to buyers within specific categories,” Goldberg said. “We're also using personalization to deliver affinity offers within broader, general merchandise mailings.”

Plans for the spring, however, look better, he said.

“We expect prospect and upgrade volume to be up next year,” he said, “with a broader assortment of magazines and merchandise being mailed to a larger variety of outside lists.”

At least one major mailer has a more optimistic view of the coming season.

“We expect to see a slight increase,” said R. Craig Cecere, director of postal and logistics at Reader's Digest Association Inc., Pleasantville, NY. “Last year was a low year. We canceled mailings because people were so afraid of opening mail because of anthrax.”

The postal service will begin hiring seasonal employees next month, Vogel said, though he expects the number will be below last year. It also will use more automated flat-sorting machines. Since last year, 185 AFSM 100s have been implemented, bringing the total to 532 nationwide.

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