Forever catalogs

In time for the holidays, BusinessWeek wrote about a service called Catalog Choice that will try to get your name off catalog mailing lists. It turns out that is not as straightforward a task as it seems.

when an activist Web site called Catalog Choice contacted the likes of L.L. Bean, Williams-Sonoma (WSM), and Harry & David and asked them to take thousands of people off their mailing lists, the retailers knew they had a public-relations problem.

How did they respond? Some—mostly outdoorsy brands like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End (SHLD)—made soothing noises. Others blew off the Web site (and subsequently, the people declining their catalogs), and have done nothing with the names.

You think you wouldn’t need an “activist” service for this, that expressing a wish not to be pestered by mail wasn’t a form of activism. It would seem as though you could simply request that the company stop wasting time, postage, and paper by refraining from sending you a catalog you don’t wish to receive. But catalog merchants, as persistent as debt collectors in pursuing their aims, apparently know better than their prospective customers what those customers really want.

L.L. Bean says it has removed some of the names on Catalog Choice’s list, but is still evaluating it for accuracy. The company wouldn’t say how many names it had removed or how long the evaluation would take. Williams-Sonoma, which also distributes the Pottery Barn (WSM) catalog, says it “is still figuring out the right thing to do for our customers” and has only analyzed samples of Catalog Choice’s list.

The right thing to do? What is there to “figure out” about a person saying, “Please stop sending me catalogs”? But retailers know that people say one thing — “I want to save,” “I care about the environment” — and do another when they, in the privacy of their own homes, are confronted with pretty pictures and insinuating fantasies. Knowing this, nothing short of a restraining order would stop the retailers from sending the catalogs. Like all direct mail operators, they don’t care what the recipients say. They only abide by the mathematics of the proposition. If the profit from sales closed through the mailings outweighs the costs of sending out the catalogs, they will continue to do it. And with the microtargeting available, the math can be more precise, they can likely track the sales returns on catalogs send to a specific zip code, maybe an address. Hence, if people don’t want catalogs, they probably need to stop shopping.