The catalog remains one of the best ways to reach consumers during the holiday season. So 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. Still, despite being less than three months old, Catalog Choice has managed to spook an industry. Consider the Nov. 29 e-mail from the Direct Marketing Assn. Bearing the subject line "JUST SAY NO," it warned retailers that Catalog Choice's "priority is to eliminate catalogs as a marketing medium. It is not in your interest to further their efforts!"
Catalog Choice isn't a new idea. But it has generated interest by doing a few things differently from its predecessors. It's free. And it lets you decline specific catalogs rather than all of them. Plus, it is operated by big green groups: the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Berkeley (Calif.)-based Ecology Center. The site's stated goal is to reduce the number of unwanted catalogs. Since its Oct. 9 launch, Catalog Choice says it has signed up 300,000-plus people, each of whom declined to receive an average of 12 titles.
The environmentalists are putting retailers on the spot at a delicate time. In the last year, "Do Not Mail" initiatives have been proposed in 15 states. Similar to the federal "Do Not Call" legislation, which bans telemarketers from calling phone numbers on a special opt-out list, the bills have made little progress so far. But the movement appears to be picking up, and bad press from a group like Catalog Choice could tip consumer sentiment.
So on Dec. 17, the DMA held a "catalog summit" at its New York offices to discuss how to fight back. "Activist groups are out there collecting names for petitions and beating the drum," DMA President John A. Greco Jr. told attendees. "We would advise you not to encourage them in any way."
At the meeting, Greco introduced an upgrade to the DMA's own opt-out service, which he recommended his members use exclusively. Like Catalog Choice, the DMA's Mail Preference Service will now let consumers pick which catalogs they do not want to receive by title. But it will require users to submit a credit-card number to verify their identity, and it will cost $1 (the DMA says it will soon remove the fee). It also will have an "opt-in" for consumers to add their names to catalogs' house lists. The hope, says Greco, is to show that direct marketers can regulate themselves.
How much influence is Catalog Choice having on retailers' behavior? Hard to say—most wouldn't talk about it. Victoria's Secret Direct (LTD) and J. Crew Group (JCG) declined to comment, and Harry & David spokesman Bill Ihle said the retailer was too busy making sure "all of Santa's orders come through" to discuss the issue.
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 activists behind the site intend to hold retailers' feet to the fire long after the holiday frenzy. "We depend on the good faith of the merchants to honor these [do-not-mail] requests," says Chuck Teller, Catalog Choice's chief. "If they don't, we'll tell our members who is not honoring them."