Jeffrey Ball's "Power Shift" column in today's Wall Street Journal has a decent piece about the persistence of paper catalogs in the age of the web. The comments about this article are also worth reading.
This brings to mind a question that I'm frequently asked -- why do you send me so many catalogs? There are two answers to this question.
The first answer is that the technology for matching names and addresses is imperfect. That is, if you order from your home and your work address, and give us different versions of your name each time, you will be in our database multiple times. We'll try to prevent that on the front end by using your customer number to match you to our files, but with phone, fax, email, web, and old-fashioned snail mail points of contact, many matches will be missed. On the back end we use sophisticated software to "de-dupe" (remove duplicates) from our database, but it is far from perfect.
Moreover, when we run the names in our database against suppression lists (such as the DMA's mail perference file) we have to rely on that same software to make a match. So, differences between our data and theirs might lead you to be missed and to receive a catalog you don't want.
Finally, when we rent names we are using that software as well. We don't want to pay to rent your name if we already have it, but if the software doesn't catch the "dupe," we do -- and you get extra catalogs.
The only way the system will work perfectly is if you use EXACTLY the same name, and EXACTLY the same address every time you order anything. Nobody can be expected to do that, but neither can we expect our software to de-dupe perfectly.
The second answer is that even if we only have you only once in our database, we might send you as many four catalogs between September and December. Why? Because it works. Like every competent direct marketer, we carefully study the response from every mailing, and each one has to pay for itself.
The key word here is "response." Catalogs prompt response, and in general they do so in a cost-effective way. If everybody responded from the first catalog you were sent (and provided that source code to us, regardless of how the ordered was placed, so we could track it back to that mailing) then everyone would get just one. But that is not the way most people respond to catalogs, so we keep mailing.
I still believe that we will see the end of print catalogs in my lifetime, and we are actively working to both prepare for that future and to help make it happen. But that day will be closer to 35 years from now than 5.