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Junk mail also a recession victim

Thanks to the recession and rising production and shipping costs, retailers are shrinking catalogs and slashing mailing lists, leaving less sorting for postal employees such as Lucretia Thomas, seen working at a distribution center in Los Angeles. Thanks to the recession and rising production and shipping costs, retailers are shrinking catalogs and slashing mailing lists, leaving less sorting for postal employees such as Lucretia Thomas, seen working at a distribution center in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes/ Associated Press/ File 2008)
By Ashley M. Heher
Associated Press / August 26, 2009

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CHICAGO - You can find a bright spot in the recession as close as your mailbox: There are far fewer hefty catalogs, bulging coupon packets, unwanted credit card offers, and glossy fliers clogging it up.

Thanks to the economic downturn and rising shipping costs, junk mail volume was down 16 percent in the nine months ending in June compared with the same period a year earlier, on pace for the steepest annual decline in decades.

Businesses that are still sending junk mail are sending less of it - shrinking their catalogs and using thinner paper to save money. It’s a sign stores are still struggling, but it also means less paper to toss in the garbage or lug to the recycling bin.

“I get excited for mail, and then I look at it, and it’s just trash,’’ said Nicole Soto, a mother of two in Winchester, Mass., who joined a service to help her reduce her junk mail.

“At the end of the day, I don’t like the idea of so much being wasted,’’ she said. “And I’m the one who feels like I’m doing the wasting, because I’m the one who has to put it in the recycle bin.’’

Williams-Sonoma Inc., parent company of mailbox mainstays Pottery Barn and West Elm, plans to cut in half the number of pages in its catalogs by 2011. It also plans to target the customers who are most likely to spend.

Fewer credit card solicitations are going out, too. About 1.4 billion fewer were mailed last year than in 2007, a decline big enough to account for a quarter of the overall drop in junk mail.

The junk mail reduction will probably end as the economy revives. Catalogs, pamphlets, and fliers remain among the cheapest and most effective ways to market and sell products and draw new shoppers into stores.

Catalogs, on average, generate $7 in sales for every dollar it takes to publish and mail them, industry data show. They also give customers a taste of a store’s cultivated image, like the modern-yet-unpretentious aesthetic of Crate & Barrel or the all-American preppy flair of J. Crew.

Websites and e-mail promotions are growing in popularity and are far cheaper for businesses - they get a $45 return on every dollar - but they fall short of catalogs in drumming up new business.

Among those hit hardest as businesses cut back on direct mail is the already struggling US Postal Service. Junk mail, which the post office calls standard mail, accounted for about a fourth of its revenue in 2008.

The postal service raised its rates for junk mail last year and again this spring, but it still made $200 million less from junk mail last year than it did in 2007, and this year’s decline could be even bigger.