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Direct Mailers Seek to Stamp Out Fears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When anthrax became a household word, the company that sends discount coupon Val-Paks to 50 million homes a month began using a stronger adhesive to seal its light-blue envelopes.

Other direct-mail companies steered clear of the talcum powder and cornstarch they had used to dry ink on catalogs and reduce friction in their high-speed mailing machines. And at least one institution, Consumers Union, stopped sending subscription pitches in blank envelopes, a trick marketers long have used to mask their identify.

The anthrax scare is forcing direct mailers, catalog houses and others that rely on the U.S. Postal Service to shift tactics. Some mailers are switching from letters to postcards and e-mail. Others are embracing packaging that is resistant to tampering. And through it all, industry leaders are steadfastly insisting that what many consumers refer to as “junk mail” is not a threat.

“So far, no commercial mail has been involved in the anthrax scare,” said H. Robert Wientzen, president and chief executive of the New York-based Direct Marketing Assn. “The likelihood of having a broad-scaled dispersal of anthrax through the use of a large mail campaign appears, from what we can tell, to be very unlikely.”

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The trade group said the direct-mail industry is rebounding from a noticeable drop in the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It also said the faltering economy, not terrorism, is the biggest challenge facing the industry, one that includes credit card issuers, catalog operators, charitable institutions and other organizations that use the mail to communicate directly with consumers.

But there are signs aplenty that the industry--responsible for 90% of the 208 billion pieces of mail delivered by the postal service last year--is still suffering from effects of the terrorism threat. Direct mailers, whose profit margins shrink when postal rates are increased, are lobbying fiercely to force the federal government to absorb anthrax-related costs that Postmaster General John Potter said could total billions of dollars. And related businesses, such as envelope makers, said they are feeling pain from the lapse in direct marketing.

“A great number of direct mailings were canceled and advertising was pulled back” after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, said Maynard H. Benjamin, president of the Envelope Manufacturers Assn. “In the last week, we have seen a very slow improvement.”

The envelope industry trade group had projected a 2% decrease in 2001 revenue, but the projection was increased to a 4% drop after the attacks, Benjamin said.

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There’s no evidence that credit card applications, time-share offers, dry-cleaning coupons and magazine subscription mailings pose a threat to the public. But mass mailers said they’re investigating ways to make their mailings safer.

Envelope manufacturers are experimenting with stronger adhesives that create airtight packages. They’re also making envelopes and packaging that incorporates red type underneath sealing flaps that could alert consumers to possible tampering.

High-tech solutions also are in the offing, both at the Postal Service and at individual companies.

“I see a time in the near future when you have paper that will detect any kind of contamination,” Benjamin said. “You’ll see paper that is doped with a biosensitive material that, if it comes into contact with any contamination, it would glow.”

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Mailing practices are being modified. Some firms are using glossy postcards, rather than letters sent in envelopes, to communicate with customers. Catalog operators are using e-mail to alert consumers when catalogs and packages are in the mail. Direct mailers also are rethinking the practice of sending mass mailings--including the never-ending wave of credit card offers--in plain, unmarked envelopes.

The plain white envelopes are designed to entice consumers to open envelopes that they might toss if they knew it was a home-mortgage loan pitch or another magazine subscription offer. Consumers Union had just completed a 50,000-letter mailing using unmarked envelopes when the first anthrax cases surfaced.

“Generally, our mail is very clearly identified. We even print a picture of our test research center on envelopes,” said Joel Gurin, an executive vice president with Consumers Union. Gurin added that the organization has no plans to again mail subscription solicitations in plain envelopes.

Consumer concern over public safety clearly has grown with the anthrax incidents that have killed four people and infected more than dozen others in Eastern states and in Washington, D.C.

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National Geographic magazine received nearly 100 calls and e-mails after mailing the first of 23 million letters affixed with a sticker offering a free map of Afghanistan. Ironically, it wasn’t the Washington, D.C.-based magazine’s offer of a map of Afghanistan that triggered anxiety; consumers were worried that the letters had traveled through anthrax-contaminated postal facilities in the nation’s capital.

“Mail with a Washington, D.C., return address is being looked at closely as it is arriving in households around the country,” said National Geographic spokeswoman Mary Jeanne Jacobsen, who noted that the recent mailing was made from various locations around the U.S., not Washington.

Catalog operators, credit card issuers and other companies that rely on the postal pervice maintain that bulk mailings are easily traceable--unlike the handwritten letters that carried anthrax to offices in Washington, D.C., and New York.

“When you’ve got a postal indicia or meter mark [on an envelope], it’s a completely traceable mailing,” said David Weaver, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Mailing & Fulfillment Service Assn., whose member companies post more than 75 billion letters and packages a year for retailers and other business concerns. “But you can bet the bad guys aren’t out there applying for meter permits.”

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The hotly competitive catalog industry, which in October entered the peak of its holiday season, maintains that its printing and mailing systems are designed to safeguard consumers.

Williams-Sonoma Inc., for example, mails about 300 million catalogs a year under the Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn brands. Its printing and mailing are handled by specialty printers in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Catalogs are printed, bound and sorted for postal routes nationwide before leaving the factory on trucks that are unloaded at Postal Service bulk-mail distribution centers.

The bulk of Williams-Sonoma’s 6 million to 7 million orders are shipped through FedEx Corp., which brings its trucks into the Williams-Sonoma distribution center in Memphis, Tenn.

“Each package is actually scanned to record where it is seven different times from the time FedEx picks it up in our warehouse to the time it is left with a customer,” said Executive Vice President Patrick J. Connolly. “It is very tightly controlled and very traceable. Every place it goes and every person who touches it is recorded--that’s a tremendous measure of safety.”

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The public health concern also is rippling through the nonprofit sector, where fourth-quarter mass mailings generate a hefty percentage of annual donations.

Grizzard Inc., a marketing firm that advises nonprofits on fund-raising tactics, said an Arkansas rescue mission’s recent bulk mailing was investigated by a local police department after some consumers called to check on whether letters they had received were legitimate, said Randy Schackmann, a Pasadena-based account supervisor with Grizzard.

“We’re saying to our clients to make sure that you’ve got your address or logo clearly stamped on envelopes,” Schackmann said. “And if you’re sending a [donor] receipt in a white envelope, we’re advising them to stamp ‘thank you receipt enclosed’ in big blue letters.”

At first blush, it would seem that businesses and institutions could easily switch to electronic mail to reach worried consumers. But the economics of e-mail aren’t yet in line with traditional marketing.

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Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., a New York-based research firm, predicts that Internet marketing will swell to a $9.4-billion industry by 2006. Internet analyst Jared Blank said it’s too early to tell whether the anthrax threat ill speed the growth of Internet marketing.

Part of the reason is that consumers like catalogs. Internet transactions generate 25% of business for such catalog operators as Lands’ End Inc., but many of those transactions occur only after consumers page through catalogs.

“There’s no substitute for ink on paper when it comes to presenting the graphics and the bold images that seem to work very well in terms of cataloging,” Wientzen said.

Though costs for online mailing lists are falling, lists quickly lose their effectiveness as companies bombard consumers with e-mailings.

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“It costs more to convert a new customer online than by using off-line, direct mail,” Blank said.

Marketers said well-known brands that regularly communicate with their customers are in the best position to weather the growing public health threat.

“I suspect that if it’s a brand you trust, you’ll see an even greater sense of trust during these times,” said Dan Rose, president of Frankel, a Chicago-based brand-marketing agency. “But if I never hear from someone and suddenly get something in the mail, the response rate is going to be lower.”

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Times staff writers Abigail Goldman and Jube Shiver Jr. contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Delivering Peace of Mind

The Direct Marketing Assn. is encouraging its 4,500 members to observe guidelines designed to spur consumer confidence in direct mailings. Among the recommendations:

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1. Avoid using plain envelopes.

2. Use a clear and identifiable return address. Consider using your company logo.

3. Consider using a toll-free number and/or Web URL address.

4. Utilize an e-mail and/or telemarketing campaign to notify consumers that mail is on the way.

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5. Discuss security measures with printing shops and mailing houses.

6. Perform a security audit on your own operations.

Source: Direct Marketing Assn.


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