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COTA: Website lets you opt out of an overstuffed holiday mailbox

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Jim Cota

It’s that time of year again and, to be honest, it drives me crazy.

It seems like every day for the past month, I’ve come home to find the mailbox overflowing with catalogs from every type of retailer you can imagine. (If my mailbox is any indication, news of the death of the printing industry is greatly exaggerated.)

I should note that I make a living helping people sell things, so I understand the necessity of telling people about goods and their prices. But we have reached a point of both enlightenment and technology that allows for much better methods. Until the retailers catch on, we need someone out there trying to cut down on the catalog deluge.

Catalog Choice to the rescue.

Similar to do-not-call lists and e-mail opt-out lists, Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org) lets you opt out of catalogs. It’s a free service that allows you to decide what arrives in your mailbox. Catalog Choice is a TrustedID company, based in Berkeley, Calif. As part of TrustedID, Catalog Choice provides a core component of the nation’s most comprehensive identity protection, privacy and junk-mail reduction service.

I’ve been a fan of Catalog Choice since it launched in 2007. Its mission is to reduce the number of unsolicited catalog mailings and promote the adoption of sustainable industry best practices. And it’s had some success: It claims to have saved 800,000 trees, 118 million pounds of solid waste, and 800 million gallons of water. Not bad.

The great thing about the service (aside from being free), is that it’s ridiculously easy to use. Simply log in, find the catalog you’d like to opt-out from, and enter your customer number from your mailing label. It works even if you don’t have the number. Can’t find the catalog you’re looking for? Add it to the database.

Of course, Catalog Choice can’t declutter your mailbox on its own. One of the more unfortunate practices of direct-mail companies is their habit of selling their lists to boost revenue. It works something like this: They send out their catalogs to everyone who ever purchased anything. If sales start to slip, they look to the one asset they have that is guaranteed to provide a return: the database of information they’ve collected about their customers. That’s why, even if you cancel your Victoria’s Secret catalog, tomes may show up next year from companies you never heard of or ordered from.

So while it can’t solve the problem entirely, it can cut down on the material you are sending directly to the recycling bin. Behind the scenes, Catalog Choice is working with major players in the industry to pass along your preferences and ensure that they comply with your requests. There are a dwindling few who refuse to play nice, but for the most part, anyone who is in the business understands the futile nature of spending money mailing catalogs to someone who doesn’t want them. Most have given up the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll see something in this catalog that will spur us to order again, even though we haven’t done so in six years.

What I’ve realized (now that my mailbox has gradually filled up again) is that you need to occasionally update your settings to ensure that the mailings don’t return. It generally takes about 90 days to process your request, so if you do it now, you should stop the deluge just in time for Mother’s Day.•

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Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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