Catalogs, consumer choice, and the annoyance-to-profits formula

Posted by Rob Walker on December 31, 2007
Posted Under: Advertising,Backlashing,Consumer Behavior,Ethics,Unconsumption

Back in October I mentioned a service called Catalog Choice, which is designed to let you opt out of, well, catalogs. I signed up, and have been steadily typing in catalog information ever since. But I can’t say I’ve seen a notable reduction in how many show up in the mail, week after week.

They tell you to wait ten weeks for results, or something like that, so I figured maybe it would just take time. But recently Business Week wrote about the service and it turns out there’s another issue. Apparently what Catalog Choice does is collect this data and turn it over to the catalog retailers, who are supposed to act on it by purging people like me from their lists. But BW says at least some retailers simply “blew off” off this information, and “have done nothing with the names.” And an email from something called The Direct Marketing Association to its members is quoted:

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!”

Evidently few retailers were willing to talk to BW. LL Bean claimed it is “evaluating [the Catalog Choice data] for accuracy.” Williams-Sonoma/Pottery Barn “says it ‘is still figuring out the right thing to do for our customers.'”

It would presumably be more accurate to say they’re still trying to figure out the right thing to do for their bottom line. After all, pretty much everybody claims to hate catalogs — but obviously lots of people order from them just the same. So the basic operating procedure is to send catalogs to people who say they don’t want them, and maybe even believe they don’t want them. It might seem wasteful to spend money pursuing such people, but I’m guessing the payoff is there: Annoying potential customers is, really, part of the business model. The question likely boils down to whether the Catalog Choice effort can make a big enough issue of this to embarrass the companies into deciding that maybe its annoyance-to-profits algorithm needs an adjustment.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I have to agree – I haven’t seen a reduction in the number of catalogs I’ve received either, even though I signed up with the service almost immediately after it was launched. I have another solution though – my mailroom keeps a recycling bin next to the mailboxes, so I just sort through my mail, take anything actually for me (and the annoying credit card solicitations that I shred), and just toss everything else into the bin. This way the catalogs never make their way to my apartment.

Written By sam on December 31st, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

I’ve written my own blogpost on Catalog Choice in November ( and am disappointed but not at all surprised by the reaction of these retailers. I have personally unsubscribed from 51 catalogs so far (imagine the pile that makes. On a monthly basis, that’s a whole tree to itself!!) with little result. I have unsubscribed because 1) I am no longer interested in the particular retailer – as in, my daughter outgrew American Girl Doll and Hannah Anderson a long time ago, 2) most catalogs are received b/c my name was sold and I never had any interest in them to begin with and 3) emails from are sufficient reminders for me if I need to shop. I shop online anyhow, I don’t need the 100+ page paper catalog to weigh down my mailbox .

Many of these large retailers are public companies and they answer to a different god. I believe they call him Profit. So, the consumer’s fickle requests don’t enter the realm of their prayer to their god. They are blinded by their devotional rituals and don’t see, as you so well mention, the irritation bordering on harassment that they are creating.

Seems to me, that for the online population, the print catalog is almost obsolete, or at the very least, unnecessary. CatalogChoice might offer to replace the requests for un-subscriptions by email addresses to conduct more targeted email campaigns(to which one can eventually unsubscribe) to encourage catalog retailers to save on printing and annoyance costs.

I won’t get into all the eco-conservation here. That’s another thorn in my side to witness all this wasted paper (included all the resources required to print the darn things). Oy!

Written By Anne-Marie Kovacs on January 2nd, 2008 @ 12:22 pm
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