Sears Had Everything: How Retail Success Became Failure

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore. It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore.

It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

Trout and Ries had a term for this phenomenon in their landmark book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind: “F.W.M.T.S.” — Forgot What Made Them Successful. In fact, Sears abandoned its catalog business in 1993.

As Shiv Gupta noted in his Target Marketing blog post on Tuesday:

“Sears was so busy picking up loose change off the floor, it forgot to look up at the bus barreling toward it.”

Sears really did have everything. At one point, you could buy a Sears house. “Sears Catalog Homes were catalog and kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940.” Wikipedia

But they also had the ability to capture the imagination of the American consumer. I have fond memories of going to the Sears store with my father and marveling at the range of merchandise: every tool imaginable, appliances, sporting goods, toys, clothing, jewelry — you name it; Sears had it.

Then there was the magical day that the Christmas Wish Book arrived in the mail and my siblings and I would spend hours with it, fine-tuning our wish list for Santa. Iconic Sears brands jumped off the pages of the catalog and into my imagination to become aspirational purchases: a Ted Williams baseball glove, a Silvertone guitar amp …

What happened?

Sears simply stopped innovating somewhere along the way. Here are some milestones:

  • “Founded shortly after the Civil War, the original Sears, Roebuck & Company built a catalog business that sold Americans the latest dresses, toys, build-it-yourself houses and even tombstones. The company was, in many ways, an early version of Amazon.” (NYTimes, 10/16/18)
  • In 1896, Sears benefited from a United States Postal Service program called Rural Free Delivery, which extended mail routes into rural areas. (NYTimes 10/15/18)
  • As more Americans began living in cities, Sears opened retail stores, the first in 1925 in Chicago.
  • “Later, its vast spread of brick-and-mortar stores positioned it in prime retail locations across the country. For years, it was the largest retailer in the United States, operating out of the tallest building in the world. At various points, it sold products like fishing tackle, tombstones, barber chairs, wigs and even a ‘Stradivarius model violin’ for $6.10.” (NYT 10/15/18)
  • Sears benefited from being a pioneer chain in a landscape of largely independent department stores. Along with JCPenney, it became a standard shopping mall anchor. Together, the two chains, along with Montgomery Ward, captured 43 percent of all department store sales by 1975 … (Then) Skyrocketing inflation meant low-price retailers, such as Target, Kmart and Walmart … lured new customers. The market became bifurcated, as prosperous upper-middle class shoppers turned to more luxurious traditional department stores, while bargain-seekers found lower prices at the discounters than at Sears. (Smithsonian 7/25/17)
  • Sears was major player in financial services in the 1980s, with Allstate Insurance and Dean Witter in the brand portfolio that included Kenmore and Craftsman. But by 1989, Sears was a shade of its former self. “It slashed prices on most of its inventory and in time shut its catalog operation, closed hundreds of stores and laid off tens of thousands of employees. Stores began carrying more outside brands and accepting nonstore credit cards to entice customers.” NYTimes 10/15/18

After abandoning the catalog business in 1993, Sears made a brief return to its roots by buying successful cataloger Lands’ End in 2002, only to spin it off in 2013.

In the end, Sears forgot what made it successful. It had everything. But Sears blew it.

The Christmas Marketing That Worked on Me, and Why

It was the weekend before Christmas, and all through the house, not a wallet had opened, we hadn’t even gone out. … So, some direct marketing shopping was in order, but from who? Here are a couple pieces of marketing that worked on me this holiday season.

It was the weekend before Christmas, and all through the house, not a wallet had opened, we hadn’t even gone out. …

So, some direct marketing shopping was in order, but from who?

Here are a couple pieces of marketing that worked on me this holiday season, and one bit of retargeting that caught the attention of my wife.

ThinkGeek

It probably won’t surprise you that I have some geeks in my life. So I’m on the ThinkGeek email list (along with at least one other TM editor, spot their Schrodinger’s Cat mug).

I wasn’t planning on ordering anything from ThinkGeek this year, but I had some unfilled gift boxes, and this email came.

"Snuggle up with 30% off your order and ThinkGeek's coziest threds"? Don't mind if I do!
“Snuggle up with 30% off your order and ThinkGeek’s coziest threds”? Don’t mind if I do.

Why it worked: There’s a Harry Potter fan on my list, and that person happens to have been looking for a comforter. So X-mas marked the spot in the top-right corner with the Harry Potter House Comforter. In addition, the percent-off offers across the top are aggressive and hooked me in. In fact, I added a second gift for the same person just to get to the next discount level.

A Christmas Faux Pas: ThinkGeek did a good job with everything here, and got my gift in the mail the day after I ordered it (a Sunday, no less). However, they also made a little bit of a rookie mistake: The day after I ordered it, I got an email with the quilt on sale for about 20 percent less.

I’m not too upset over it, since it’s Christmas and the buying experience has been very good so far. But there was a moment there where I felt like a rube. I’m not sure what the best way is to make sure you don’t mail new deals to recent buyers, but as the buyer here, I feel like that’s a good way to undermine your good first impression.

Fairytale Brownies

I don’t only know geeks. I also know some ramblers. I’ve got family in a few states across the U.S. who we send gifts to.

Customer Journeys Don’t Start on Your Website

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense here: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that.

Winning Over Consumers: The 4 essential content considerations that drive prospects to choose you over your competitorsDuring my startup CTO days, which were a relatively long time ago in tech years (much like dog years), I’d met with folks at Google to see if there was any synergy to be found. This was way before they became almighty; you could say that it was when they were just a search company, though they were already the best one in the industry at that. But the short story is that the meeting went south as soon as it started.

Our company was one of the first behavioral targeting companies based on SKU-level transaction data from more than 1,000 sources. (Now I hear that the same co-op database is much bigger.) In those days, the first page of our presentation deck said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” a statement that I still stand by.

But one of the mid-level executives from Google cut our CEO off in mid-sentence and said that the company did not subscribe to that point of view. He said the only thing that matters is what the user types in the search box right at this moment. I was too shocked by such bold statement to refute, but I thought that it was such a myopic view.

Obviously, based on what we hear in the news and our user experience, we can see that Google has been collecting every bit of data that comes its way, and actually uses everything it collects. I wonder if the person who made that statement properly represented Google’s view of the world, even back then.

Let’s forget about all the technology and data stuff for a moment, and bring in some common sense: We all are the sum of our past experiences, not just a snapshot of the present moment. Without having a degree in psychology, anyone who has any long-term relationship with other human beings knows that. Likewise, if marketers want to stay relevant with their customers and prospects, yes, they simply cannot ignore their pasts.

Luckily for marketers and data players, human beings constantly leave trails behind, digital or otherwise. Data are everywhere, from the past to the present moment. With all of the technologies available to us, we can do almost magical things in comparison to the early days of marketing analytics and targeting. Then, why aren’t we impressed with modern-day marketing as consumers? Aren’t we living in the days of Big Data? And why do you think the very word “Big Data” doesn’t sound so promising anymore?

I dare to say it is because of decision-makers with tunnel-vision occupying the marketing world. No amount of data will help the matter if the users lack vision. If a marketer thinks that the so-called “customer journey” starts only after someone lands on some site, well, he is already stuck in that small world. Unfortunately, customers do not live in some one-dimensional channel, and their journeys started long before they ever landed anywhere, or before they typed in any search word in that little box. Someone — maybe the channel manager’s colleague a few doors down the corridor — did something to evoke curiosity for the search. And that trigger may have happened because yet someone else collected and analyzed the data from an even earlier moment.

In this world, there are marketers who create “needs,” and there are ones who react to customer action, and we obviously need them all. “Omnichannel” marketing is a popular term, but even that is based on a flat point of view. We need to see the world along the timeline, as well. It is just that the situation often is misunderstood, because not all channels may seemingly be relevant at the same time. When marketing departments are divided based on channels, it becomes nearly impossible for any one player to obtain such a timeline view.

To part away from the pusher’s side, let’s follow a journey of a consumer. For me, as a consumer, to receive a catalog or an email for golf equipment, someone must have collected a lot of data about me. Then someone else must have carefully consolidated all kinds of data around me (i.e., creating a 360-degree view of “me” based on demographic, transactional, behavioral, psychographic, attitudinal, movement, geographic data, etc.). When treated right, such data trails would lead to proper targeting, so that I get to see relevant messages or offers, through appropriate delivery channels, digital or not.

Exigency Is Gone, But Where Is Reform?

The bone chill of Sunday, April 10 in the Northeast may have reminded us how winter just wants to hold on, long after its calendar passing. However on that same day, a 4.3 percent exigency on U.S. postal rates was lifted — it felt warm for a moment, but deceptively so.

USPS default imageThe bone chill of Sunday, April 10 in the Northeast may have reminded us how winter just wants to hold on, long after its calendar passing. However on that same day, a 4.3 percent exigency on U.S. postal rates was lifted — it felt warm for a moment, but deceptively so.

While many mail and marketing groups have lauded exigency’s end, DMA among them, the one reality remains: Postal finances are a mess, and our very inactive Congress — not for lack of some leaders trying — has the keys to fix it.

Bouncing from crisis to crisis and kicking the can seems to be the Congressional leadership position of the past “count-them” 10 years. And none of the crises — defaults, exigencies and otherwise — seems to muster any amount of attention, unless of course, a local postal facility is slated to close. It’s really a travesty that microeconomics (and micromanaging), not macroeconomics, is the only motivation that some elected officials (not all) appear to have on this Constitution protection of mail delivery.

Will Congress act on our continued cry for postal reform? Probably not in an election year.

Yet Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) is pushing for his iPOST bill, with some GOP support, with the marketer-disliked exigency likely to be reinserted alongside very much needed reforms (healthcare, plus). Hence, a compromise that perhaps — just perhaps — we can move ahead with one tweak or another? I’ll let our trade associations handle the maneuvering and wisdom of the bill alongside other USPS stakeholders.

Winter hanging on? Maybe waiting for postal reform was just too bitterly cold for the models of the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

A Great Match: Diamonds and Direct Mail

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Candy and flowers are easy. But jewelry … not so much. So I turned to direct mail for some ideas.

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and you know how that goes. Candy and flowers — they’re easy. But jewelry … diamonds  … not so much. This year, I wanted to get something different for my beloved, so I turned to direct mail for some help. Along the way to finding something that she’ll really like, I also found some examples of good marketing practices.

The first brand name I thought of was Blue Nile, the world’s biggest online seller of diamonds. Back in 2000-2001, long before content marketing became a thing, these folks were actually doing it. Blue Nile mailed a 40-page booklet targeting clueless guys (ahem  … me) with advice on “how to carve a turkey,” “why you should buy a tux,” and yes, “how to buy a diamond.”

Blue N_01I pulled it from the files of Who’s Mailing What, and it was exactly as I remembered. Lots of copy, kind of cheeky, with nothing too technical, just a good starting explanation of the four C’s of diamond selection: cut, color, clarity, carat weight. No pricing that might scare off buyers even before they’ve had time to digest what they’ve learned. For some people, the easygoing tone, minimalist graphics, and simplified information are enough to begin looking around on a website, but I wanted more.

Next, I looked at a mailer from Mitchells, an independent family of retail stores out of Westport, Conn. that prides itself on exceptional customer service. Mailed in 2011, this guide to “Our Diamonds!” is a giant 10”x13” brochure printed on heavy soft gloss paper that shows off its wares in crisp black-and-white and 4-color photos.

Mitchells_01

One page includes a 3”x6” diagram of the “Anatomy of a Diamond.” It’s good information to show; you can almost imagine one of Mitchells’ salespersons carefully taking the time to personally explain the details to you in one of the stores. There’s no pricing for anything here either, but given the store’s upper income demographic, that’s another detail best left to the salespeople. The company’s expertise is highlighted throughout the brochure via quotes, photos and service descriptions.

With some background now in hand, I poked around the website for Diamond Nexus, a Wisconsin-based online retailer, before signing up for its email. The incentive — a chance to win a ring — was pretty persuasive.

Immediately, a pop-up address form was launched, asking “Would you like a FREE catalog?” I filled it out and four business days later, I got a polybagged copy of the company’s Winter 2015 direct mail catalog.

DN_01

It measures 7-1/2”x10-1/2”, 60 pages, on heavy stock paper. Sharp color images of diamonds, rings, and jewelry are scattered throughout. And there’s pricing! But what really sets the catalog apart, and sparked my interest initially, is its focus on the company’s unique selling proposition (USP). All of its diamonds are manufactured, or “grown” in a lab, not mined. The ethical and environmental reasons for this business choice are explained over a few pages at the front of the book.

DN_02They’re followed by several pages of photos and highly-detailed charts describing how its diamonds are made, sized and certified, and how they differ from the mined diamonds of their competition. At the same time, a “No Regrets Guarantee” is offered to offset any worry that the customer may have about the purchase.

The great thing about the content provided in all of these direct mail packets is that it fit each of its audiences so well. Getting the customer to like and trust your brand — whether it’s with offbeat humor, terrific customer service or different ethical standards — can be an approach that stands out in a crowded field and creates lifetime customers.

‘Take This Catalog and Shove It!’ – A Modern Customer Relations Parable

Somewhere within the bowels of Restoration Hardware, somebody got themselves a calculator and said to themselves, “Hey! I know how we can save a whole lot of money—let’s print these babies all at once!” What they failed to take into account was the potential negative reaction of their customers

Somewhere within the bowels of Restoration Hardware, somebody got themselves a calculator. And when they added up the cost of creating, printing and mailing multiple catalogs throughout the year, they said to themselves, “Hey! I know how we can save a whole lot of money—let’s print these babies all at once, and drop ship them via UPS. It’s gonna save us thousands in time, paper and postage!”

What they failed to take into account was the potential negative reaction of their customers.

When 15 pounds of catalogs landed on my doorstep I was stunned. At first I thought they must have mistaken me for an interior designer, and figured I need to be “in the know” on every single product SKU in their inventory.

But upon further examination, I was simply disgusted at their lack of marketing savvy. Not only did it take me more than 10 minutes to cut off all the plastic that encased them, but the books instantly filled my small recycling bin in the kitchen.

As a marketer, I wondered why I was even on their list. Not only have I not spent $1 at Restoration Hardware in the last 12-months, but upon further reflection, I’m not sure I’ve spent more than $100 there in the last several years!

Cranky, I took to Facebook to see if I was the only recipient of this marketing fiasco. It turns out 45 of my FB friends were also on the receiving end of this giant mailing effort. And 25 of them left equally cranky comments of support to my rant. One even suggested that we collect all the catalogs in the neighborhood and drive over to RH headquarters and set them ablaze on their doorstep! Yikes!

Next, I decided to let Restoration Hardware know of my frustration. First I visited their FB page and left my post, expressing my disgust. Taking a quick peek again this week, I’ve discovered lots of lots of similar customer complaints, including comments like “I will never shop at your store again!!!”

But the highlight (or perhaps lowlight) was my experience with the RH brand directly. I went to their website and completed the Feedback form. But it was the response I got that told me that RH is clueless when it comes to marketing. To help put this into perspective, I’ll share my note to them and their canned response. This is all a true case study in what not to do.

From: carolyn@goodmanmarketing.com
Received: 6/6/14 1:49:23 PM PDT
To: carolyn@goodmanmarketing.com
Subject: RH – Feedback

As a homeowner, I am appalled at the 50 lbs of catalogs you sent me recently. It took me 10 minutes to cut through all the plastic, so I could dump 13 catalogs in my recycle bin. I posted my crankiness to my FB page and have had over 40 others respond with equal disgust.

As a marketer, I am stunned at your lack of understanding of your customers and prospects. It can’t possibly make good financial sense to send me all this stuff as I haven’t made a purchase from you in years … and even then didn’t spend more than $100. Please, I’m begging you, take me off your mailing list … and contact me if you want some help with marketing strategies and tactics that can truly pay off with engaged customers, higher average order sizes, and brand evangelists.

From: Restoration Hardware Customer Service [mailto:webcs@restorationhardware.com]
Sent: Saturday, June 07, 2014 7:22 PM
To: Carolyn Goodman
Subject: RE: RH – Feedback <<#419189-1221170#>>

Dear Carolyn,

Thank you for contacting Restoration Hardware regarding our sourcebooks. We respect your environmental concerns and assure you that we are also very conscientious about our global footprint. The paper we use for our catalogs is sourced from sustainable forests, certified by ‘Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification’ (PEFC). According to the PEFC website, the group works throughout the entire forest supply chain to ensure that timber and non-timber forest products are produced with respect for the highest ecological, social, and ethical standards.

Additionally, we recently reduced the number of sourcebooks and the frequency by which we send them. Mailings that were once monthly are now only twice per year. For those who prefer to view our catalogs online, we have made our sourcebooks available on our website and through various smartphone and tablet applications.

In order to ensure that you are removed from our mailing list, please cancel your subscription via our website by clicking here. If you are unable to do so, please respond with the name and mailing address in which the sourcebooks were delivered, and we can certainly cancel your subscription for you.

We sincerely value your feedback. It is through our customers’ input that we continue to improve our quality of service. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

Again, thank you for contacting Restoration Hardware.

Sincerely,

Jenna Blase
Email Customer Service Advocate
Restoration Hardware

Direct Mail Benchmarks From DMA

In my years following the direct marketing field, one of the resources I’ve most appreciated is the Direct Marketing Association’s annual roundup of direct and interactive marketing statistics, the DMA Statistical Fact Book. Each year, this compilation of research studies—this year, 40 prominent sources—offers benchmarks and other metrics related to nearly a dozen categories. Examining direct mail-related data, here are a few stats from this year’s edition that jump out at me. Did you know

In my years following the direct marketing field, one of the resources I’ve most appreciated is the Direct Marketing Association’s annual roundup of direct and interactive marketing statistics, the DMA Statistical Fact Book. Each year, this compilation of research studies—this year, 40 prominent sources—offers benchmarks and other metrics related to nearly a dozen categories: Internet, mobile marketing, social media, catalog, consumer demographics, direct mail, direct marketing overview, email, nonprofit and USPS information.

Examining direct mail-related data, here are a few stats from this year’s edition that jump out at me. Did you know:

  1. The mean cost per order or lead for a letter-sized direct mail piece sent to a house file is $19.35, and the same sent to a prospect or total file is $51.30. —”DMA Response Rate Report,” 2012.
  2. More than 12.5 million consumers purchased prescription drugs via a mail or phone order. —Experian Simmons “National Consumer Study,” 2012.
  3. In the food category, 16.8 percent of coupons redeemed originated from the Internet, home-printed; another 6.6 percent originated from direct mail. —Valassis/NCH Marketing Services, “Coupon Facts Reports,” 2013.
  4. The salary range of marketing analytics directors with 7+ years’ experience was $119,300 to $131,500. —Crandall Associates, 2012.
  5. 54.5 percent of U.S. Households read, looked at, or set aside for later reading, their letter-sized enveloped direct mail pieces in 2011. For larger than letter-size envelope mail, 67.2 percent did the same. —USPS “Household Diary Study,” 2012.
  6. Mail order companies have the highest percentage of pieces addressed to specific household members—97.1 percent of their direct mail, while Restaurants have the least—16.2 percent. —USPS “Household Diary Study,” 2012.
  7. The response rate for credit card mailings in 2012 was 0.6 percent—down from 2.2 percent in 1993, but up from 0.3 percent in 2005. —Ipsos/Synovate Mail Monitor, 2012.
  8. In 2012, 54.2 percent of total value of U.S. Mail is attributable to direct mail advertising across all classes. —DMA/USPS “Revenue, Pieces and Weight by Class of Mail and Special Services,” 1990-2012.
  9. In the U.S., direct mail marketing spend held steady at $45.2 billion between 2011 and 2012. It stood at $43.8 billion in 2009. —Winterberry Group, 2013.
  10. After peaking at 19.6 billion catalogs mailed (in the U.S.) in 2007, only 11.8 billion catalogs were mailed in 2012. —DMA/USPS “Revenue, Pieces and Weight by Class of Mail and Special Services,” 2012.
  11. Of 11,743 catalogs in the U.S., 94.1 percent of catalogs have an online version—MediaFinder.com, “National Directory of Catalogs,” 2012.

No wonder the 200-page DMA Statistical Fact Book is—year to year—among DMA’s best sellers in its bookstore. It’s available for purchase via DMA’s online bookstore. The cost is $249 for DMA members and $499 for non-members: https://imis.the-dma.org/bookstore/ProductSingle.cfm?p=0D45047B|4DA56D9737FF45DF90CA1DA713E16B80

Happy reading!

“Mail?! Isn’t That Dead?”

“Mail? Isn’t that dead?” That’s the reaction I sometimes get from new friends when I talk about my job (well, part of it): analyzing direct mail. To answer that ‘direct’ question, let’s take a dive into …

“Mail? Isn’t that dead?” That’s the reaction I sometimes get from new friends when I talk about my job (well, part of it): analyzing direct mail.

To answer that “direct” question, let’s take a dive into the retail sector. Yeah, the postal service is in crisis, mail volume is in decline, and digital retail channels are flexing their muscles more than ever. But over the last few months I’ve seen some terrific direct mail demonstrating that some companies still realize and celebrate the unique value of direct mail in positioning their brands.

My first “aha!” moment came in late April, with the new J. Crew catalog. On the cover was a greeting in white text (“NICE TO MEET YOU”) on a red background. But that wasn’t what got my attention. It was a two-page spread inside — the welcome to this “Style Guide” — that made me stop and read closely (see image in the media player).

The letter talks about how the catalog has been used by customers: “You read us on the train and on the beach. You also dog-ear the pages to mark your favorite looks … SO HERE’S YOUR OFFICIAL COLOR BIBLE, YOUR OCCASIONAL TRAVELOGUE, YOUR WHAT-SHOE-GOES-WITH-WHAT-SKIRT AND WHAT-TIE-GOES-WITH-THIS-JACKET SOURCE OF INSPIRATION.” In essence, the catalog is a benefit all by itself.

Lord & Taylor mailed a Style Guide of its own in August. It includes a note from Suzanne Timmins, the company’s Senior VP & Fashion Director, who confidently proclaims, “Our Style Guide is all you will need to build your fall wardrobe. Take it from me, it’s what’s chic right now!” Likewise, Ann Taylor’s head designer, Lisa Axelson, introduced readers to the store’s first edition of “The Workbook.” Actress Kate Hudson, the star of its Fall ads, appeared on the cover, but, Axelson says, the focus of the issue is on “women like you, with 9-5 schedules and a 24/7 life.”

As with the other catalogs, there are lots of call-outs throughout to combinations of styles both new and old. Both the Ann Taylor and Lord & Taylor efforts include incentives (a gift card and coupons, respectively) that are good only at the brick-and-mortar stores; the J. Crew offer code can be used either at a store or online.

It’s not just apparel retailers who are championing their expertise and exclusivity. On a cover, Design Within Reach recently asked its readers “What is MODERN?” The answers — “the people and places that shaped the modern objects with which we live” — are found on the pages inside, claims company president & CEO John Edelman in the letter inside.

Much of the catalog explains the history of the design movement, and showcases products that exemplify the people, places, forms and materials that influenced decades of home and office design. It’s all about having an ongoing conversation, according to Edelman. “Talk about design, test us on our knowledge, or just listen to our stories.”

Many retailers can sell clothing and furniture like what these cataloguers offer. They can promise lower prices, similar quality, and good customer service. But these companies stand apart because of how they keep direct mail relevant; they use high-quality paper, copy and images to break through the mailbox clutter and build (or reinforce) a unique identity for themselves and, for their customers, a lifestyle.

So, to answer that original question: Dead? Nope.

Paul Bobnak is the director of the Who’s Mailing What! Archive, the most complete library of direct mail in the world. Reach him at pbobnak@napco.com.

Inside the Recycling Tub: Catalogs & Direct Mail, Post-Consumer

The year was 1990. Earth Day turned 20 years old. The darling book that year was 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Its author’s top recommendation was “Stop Junk Mail.” The book was a “cultural phenomena,” as one reviewer recalled, selling more than 5 million copies in all.

The year was 1990. Earth Day turned 20 years old. The darling book that year was 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Its author’s top recommendation was “Stop Junk Mail.” The book was a “cultural phenomena,” as one reviewer recalled, selling more than 5 million copies in all.

During the early 1990s, millions of consumers wrote their request to the then-Mail Preference Service (MPS, now DMAchoice) to remove themselves from national mailing lists, partially as a result of the media hype around that publication and its recommendation to consumers to sign up for MPS. Even some cities and towns urged their citizens (with taxpayer money) to get off mailing lists. I don’t think the Direct Marketing Association released publicly its MPS consumer registration figures, but it swelled to the point where some saturation mailers nearly considered not using the file for fear it would disqualify them for the lowest postage within certain ZIP Codes where new MPS registrants were concentrated. (DMA developed a saturation mailer format at the time to preserve MPS utility.)

Removing names from a mailing list is what solid waste management professionals call “source reduction”—an act that prevents the production of mail (and later waste) in the first place.

One of the reasons “junk mail” met with some consumer hostility then was simply because once you were done with a catalog or mail piece, wanted or not, there was no place to put it except in the trash. It seemed to many, “All this waste!” (that actually amounted to about 2.3 percent of the municipal solid waste stream back then).

Thankfully, there were other marketplace and public policy dynamics tied to support of the green movement, circa 1990. In a word, “recycling” (like source reduction) was seen as a part of responsible solid waste management. At the time, North American paper mills were scrambling to get recovered fiber to manufacture paper products and packaging with recycled content. Some states (and the federal government) set minimum recycled-content and “post-consumer” recycled-content percentage requirements for the paper they procured, while California mandated diversion goals for solid waste from its landfills. Increasingly, foreign trading partners were clamoring for America’s discarded paper to meet their ravenous demands for fiber. The cumulative results were an aggressive increase in the amount of paper collected for recycling and the number of collection points across the United States.

All this boded well for catalogs and direct mail, as far as their collection rates. Catalogs and magazines are considered equivalent when it comes to their fiber makeup. They do tend to have more hardwood (short, thinner fibers) versus softwood (long, strong fibers) since the hardwood gives a nice, smooth printing surface. When they are collected for recycling, recovered catalogs and magazines are suitable for lower quality paper/packaging grades, as well as for tissue. Some of the fiber does wind up getting used as post-consumer waste in new magazines and catalogs, but producers of such papers much prefer having recovered office paper (ideally not mixed with other lower-quality post-consumer papers) as their source of post-consumer content, as the quality is better for making higher quality magazine/catalog papers. (See link below from Verso Paper.)

Most direct mail when recovered is classified as mixed papers, and is suitable for tissue, packaging and other recovered-fiber products. (Today, a lot of paper recovery mixes it all together, and with positive reuse.) By 2007, DMA had received permission from the Federal Trade Commission to begin allowing mailers to place “recyclable” messages and seals on catalogs and mail pieces (roughly 60 percent of U.S. households must have access to local recycling options before “recyclable” labels can be used). Upon this FTC opinion, DMA promptly launched its “Recycle Please” logo program. By 2010, in addition, thousands of U.S. post offices were placing “Read-Respond-Recycle” collection bins for mixed paper in their lobbies.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began tracking “Standard Mail” in its biennial Municipal Solid Waste Characterization Report in 1990, the recovery rate (through recycling collection) was near 5 percent. By 2009 (the most current year reported), the recovery rate had increased more than 10-fold to 63 percent—but I cite this figure with a big asterisk. There will be a discussion in a future post on why the EPA MSW recycling data may not be as accurate (and as optimistic) as these findings seem to present. In fact, the EPA itself has asked for public comment on how its current MSW study methodology can be improved—again, more on that in another post.

While I’m not an expert on solid waste reporting, I certainly can see the positive direction underway here, no matter what the actual recovery rate may be. The more catalogs and direct mail that are recovered for their fiber, chances are that there will be more efficient use of that fiber in the supply chain, rather than ending up in a landfill. That helps relieve pressure on paper and packaging pricing, which is good for our bottom lines.

It might also, just a little bit, make a consumer think to herself “I love my junk mail”—as she takes the no-longer-needed mail at week’s or season’s end and places it into a recycling tub. Recycling makes us feel good. It is simple to do. Recycling may not truly save the Earth, but it certainly does extend the life of an importantly renewable natural resource, wood fiber.

Helpful links: