L.L. Bean's 800 Mistake Raises Industry Questions

Cataloger L.L. Bean, Freeport, ME, scrambled recently to correct an error in its Kids Fall 1999 catalog, but the remedy may have been illegal, industry experts said last week.

The catalog, which dropped the week of July 19 and featured an incorrect 800 vanity number, should have only listed its correct toll-free number: 1-877-LLBKIDS. Instead, it was mailed with both the 877 and the incorrect 800 number. The number, according to Mary Rose MacKinnon, senior PR representative at L.L. Bean, rang in a home in Virginia because of a telecommunications glitch. The number was immediately assumed by L.L. Bean, she said.

“AT&T or Bell Atlantic told us it was an inactive number and it was somehow ringing in a residential home,” MacKinnon said. “Customers dialed that number. It was actually a dormant 800 number that was not connected to any business.”

The woman in Virginia received an apology from the catalog marketer and “we sent her a gift certificate for her kindness,” MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon said reports by The Boston Globe and repeated by the Associated Press claiming that a financial settlement was reached in the matter were inaccurate. The Aug. 5 Associated Press story also contained quotes from public relations manager Rich Donaldson that conflicted with his colleague's comments. Donaldson, according to the story, said the 800 number rang at a child-oriented business in Virginia, not a residence.

The question is whether L.L. Bean's gift certificate to the unnamed Virginia consumer can be construed as a financial arrangement. Current FCC toll-free number legislation states that numbers are “placed in the available pool of toll-free numbers for reservation on a first-come, first-served basis.” In addition, there is no way to reserve or guarantee specific toll-free numbers to interested parties, and “the practices of hoarding and brokering toll-free numbers are not in the public interest and parties that hoard and broker numbers will be subject to penalties.”

“You cannot sell or trade or do anything with an 800 number,” said Tyler Prochnow, an attorney who specializes in telemarketing at Lathrop & Gage, Kansas City, MO. “The FCC has held there is no property interest in 800 numbers, so you cannot sell it. You cannot even barter for legitimate purposes. Some of the people I've talked to have said in instances like this L.L. Bean situation where it is clearly in the best interest of the public, occasionally they'll look the other way and say this is a benefit to the public.”

One industry observer said L.L. Bean was simply trying to protect its trademark, and she maintains the FCC should rescind regulations that are ineffective and counterproductive to business.

“It's exactly like domain names [on the Internet],” said Judith Oppenheimer, publisher of ICB Toll-Free News. “One should be able to buy and sell them as one needs to. The purchase and selling of toll-free numbers is such an active market that the industry itself earlier this year attempted to simply standardize the procedure. They tabled the process when they realized they could not incorporate it into the toll-free guidelines because it's against the FCC's 800 regulations.”

Another executive said he hasn't heard much talk among catalogers about the FCC regulations.

“It's certainly not a big topic in the catalog industry,” said Bill Dean, president of W.A. Dean & Associates, San Francisco. “You want an 800 number that's easy to dial, but nobody really gets hung up on that. I think if you were to grab 20 catalogs, you'd find very few of them use [vanity numbers].”

DM Management, Hingham, MA, which mails the J. Jill and Nicole Summers catalogs, is among many catalog marketers that use number-based toll-free numbers. “We've never talked about using vanity numbers,” said president/CEO Gordon R. Cooke. “It was never raised as an issue.”

One reason vanity number use may not be as widespread in the catalog world is that remembering the number is not an issue.

“The catalog is in front of you and you don't have to try and remember it, said Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association.

Lands' End uses vanity numbers in some cases. “We have quite a few other numbers we use, like 1-800-LandsEnd when we first started doing television advertising,” said a spokeswoman.

The DMA has taken a stand in the past on the subject of vanity numbers.

“We argued hard at the FCC that you should be able to protect a vanity number as you go into the new [toll-free number] series: 877,866 and so on,” Cerasale said.

Despite the DMA's efforts, the FCC did not allow companies to reserve particular vanity numbers in the 877 toll-free series.

“I think the issue is up in the air,” Cerasale said. “The FCC's position is you can't broker. It doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Our position is that you should at least give some ability for people to try and protect their brand.” The flip side, he cautioned, leaves room for potential extortion.

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