Blog Post

Diamonds in the Junk (Mail)

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: If you live anywhere in the United States, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Junk Mail is the bane of modern existence. And no, I am not talking about junk email, but I am talking about junk mail, of the old fashioned snail mail variety.

It is quite frustrating to come home after a long day to find your mailbox stuffed with credit card offers, slick marketing messages to buy a house or auto insurance and notices of sales taking place in your city. And then there are those catalogues, which are getting bigger and bigger everyday.

They are actually fun – nice photos of objects/things you can’t really afford, but wish you could. Anyway I think the problems start when companies start sending you catalogs that really don’t have anything to do with your interests, your shopping history or even your gender.

jcrewlogo.gifTake for example JCrew, which continues to send me a women’s wear catalog, even though I have bought more Khakis from them than any man should ever be allowed to. Same goes for socks and other personals. JCrew must have my sales history somewhere on their online store which could help them more accurately define me as a customer. And yet, JCrew is gender confused. I am guessing I am not the only one who is getting the real junk catalogues.

The mistakes are in sharp contrast to say, Amazon’s recommendation engine, which despite being less than accurate does a pretty good job of identifying things we are most likely to be interested in acquiring.

In the past, there have been stories about how TiVo confused someone for being either too young or too old, but at least that’s based on viewing patterns. But catalog companies tend to make mistakes despite having all the demographic and personal information.

Why is that? Why is a company that thrives on catalog sales making these mistakes? I am assuming they have a pretty sophisticated computing infrastructure, and have pretty well defined databases, and yet the mistakes – which given the escalating costs of paper, printing and postage are only going to go up.

It seems what these guys need is a better analytical tool, a more sophisticated data mining utility, that reduces waste and is more accurate. Sort of like what Google did for web search! The current generation of tools – I frankly don’t have a clue which ones – are clearly not doing the job. Opportunity?

I don’t want to pick on Jcrew — I should be harder instead on the auto insurance folks who send blind flyers. I guess they could use help in identifying the fact that I don’t own a car, and never have. I mean these companies are buying up leads and spending millions on acquiring names to send junk mail to – they are likely to spend less on a tool that actually works and helps them cut costs and monetize their efforts better.

I hope someone does build a better tool, because I am sick and tired of Urban Outfitters sending me their catalog, and reminding me that I am now in the middle age, and can’t really fit into cool clothes the kids are wearing these days!

Update: Opportunity grabbed. My good buddy Pankaj Shah has started a company, Green Dimes to save all of us from Junk Mail. And on top of that the company is actually doing something good. Check it out.

24 Responses to “Diamonds in the Junk (Mail)”

  1. I get the same thing from GEICO. One time I quoted my coverage with them just so I knew how competitive they were (I’m an agent, so I need to know those things) and ever since, I’ve probably received 20 solicitations. What a waste!

  2. For me, the two worse offenders has to be Comcast and GEICO!

    In Comcast’s case: I have received bulk mail from them as often as 3 to 4 times in a single week! I sent them a complaint letter, and lo and behold a representative from their Marketing Department called, and I gave her my home address, even going as far as doing the “B for boy” so they couldn’t register the wrong apartment. A few days later, I got a letter stating that my address was removed, and to allow 30 business days for the change to take effect.

    After about two months, they were still coming, so when I checked the letter,they addressed it to Apt.D, so it never got on. Rather recently though, I’ve made it a new policy to “refuse” all future mailings from Comcast, and have mentioned that on my mailbox.

    Same for GEICO, I get sick of receiving their auto insurance solicitations, so I’ve also started to refuse them en masse.

  3. Hi, thanks for letting people know about GreenDimes! GreenDimes is happy to help folks reduce their junk mail by getting them off direct mail lists and unsolicited offers, and opting them out of the catalogs they no longer want (while keeping the catalogs they do want!). AND GreenDimes plants a tree for every member every month.

    Right now you have the chance to do even more good by signing up by MARCH 22nd – GreenDimes is giving new members 25 BONUS TREES. Already a member?
    Then refer a friend using your GreenDimes Friends tab and we’ll give both of you 25 bonus trees. Learn more at

    Thanks again for the post!
    Kendra at GreenDimes

  4. Jennifer

    Comcast is another–I get several glossy mailers a week to me even though I have cable, internet and phone through them already. That’s in addition to all of the ads stuffed in my bill.

    I like catalogs, though, even if I can’t afford the stuff.

  5. The USPS considering filtering/whitelisting services is not going to happen. They actively promote junk mail as it’s their main source of revenue, especially now that more and more people are paying bills online.

    One easy way to cut down on junk mail is to write a letter to the Direct Marketing Association. I’ve done it, and it definitely has cut down on the majority of the junk mail I receive. More info here –

  6. The worst is Dish Network. I’ve been a subscriber for years but every few months I get a “Become A New Dish Network Subscriber” card in the mail. Annoying.

  7. Ramsey Fahel

    Do Not Mail Opt-Out Law would be fair to everyone.

    The proposed recent “Do not mail” is an Opt-Out law. Only those not desiring advertising mail need opt-out. Anyone desiring advertising mail can do nothing – and continue to receive it. Why deny those wishing to avoid advertising mail the power to do so?

    I do not consider handling unwanted advertising placed against my will on my personal property to be a civic obligation!

    The US Supreme Court said in the Rowan case in 1970, ““In today’s [1970] complex society we are inescapably captive audiences for many purposes, but a sufficient measure of individual autonomy must survive to permit every householder to exercise control over unwanted mail. To make the householder the exclusive and final judge of what will cross his threshold undoubtedly has the effect of impeding the flow of ideas, information, and arguments that, ideally, he should receive and consider. Today’s merchandising methods, the plethora of mass mailings subsidized by low postal rates, and the growth of the sale of large mailing lists as an industry in itself have changed the mailman from a carrier of primarily private communications, as he was in a more leisurely day, and have made him an adjunct of the mass mailer who sends unsolicited and often unwanted mail into every home. It places no strain on the doctrine of judicial notice to observe that whether measured by pieces or pounds, Everyman’s mail today is made up overwhelmingly of material he did not seek from persons he does not know. And all too often it is matter he finds offensive.”

    Furthermore, the Supreme Court said, “the mailer’s right to communicate is circumscribed only by an affirmative act of the addressee giving notice that he wishes no further mailings from that mailer.

    To hold less would tend to license a form of trespass and would make hardly more sense than to say that a radio or television viewer may not twist the dial to cut off an offensive or boring communication and thus bar its entering his home. Nothing in the Constitution compels us to listen to or view any unwanted communication, whatever its merit; we see no basis for according the printed word or pictures a different or more preferred status because they are sent by mail.”

    We need a nationwide “Do Not Mail” law to create a one-stop, convenient place for homeowners to give senders the aforementioned affirmative notice that we do not want certain kinds of mail sent to our homes.

    Ramsey A Fahel

  8. Well, you are asking for targeted marketing campaigns!
    Most of these companies should have CRM systems that should help them do this if you are already their customer. Otherwise, there are places where you can get targeted leads..(M < Age X, Single, no house, Blah..) Iam guessing that they are still doing carpet bombing because it is actually cost effective for them! But you are right, Companies should pursue permission marketing (

  9. Nice article.
    I am still working through the constant (read: biweekly)solicitations from geico asking me to switch (and swearing it will take 15mins or less) – which is weird since I have had an insurance policy (home, auto, umbrella) with them for the last 8 years!

    Go figure.

  10. Stan Miller

    Hmm… I wonder if I could have submitted a change of address requests for these alleged roommates:

    ‘Patron at’
    ‘Friends at’

    That might have worked!

  11. Stan Miller

    Junk mail can be real problem for some – particularly for those living in planned communities with small clustered mailboxes. I know.

    More than once, I found my mailbox empty upon returning home from a 2 or 3 day business trip.

    The post office had actually put a stop on my mail service because my box had become full – mostly with junk mail! And most of this junk wasn’t even address to me or my g/f. It was addressed to ‘resident’ at?

    And rather than leave what had accumulated up to the overflow, they pulled all the mail and placed a temporary stop on the service.

    Their reasoning? The USPS assumed that we had moved or had gone on a long vacation.

    Naturally, I asked if I could fill out a form which would block any mail not addressed specifically to us. No can do! Irrespective of the recipient name, businesses have paid postage to have the mail delivered to a specific address and the USPS is obligated the follow through on that service.

    But in doing so, this generic mail was actually blocking real mail. Go figure…

  12. You mention auto insurance companies blindly sending you stuff when you don’t have a car…

    How about when your own auto insurance company keep sending you mail (addressed to you, not “resident”), asking you to switch to them? Geico does this.

    I second the mention of Green Dimes above:

    They seem to be reducing our junkmail weight.

  13. GEICO thinks I have a fleet of cars apparently. Victoria’s Secret thinks I have a secret. BellSouth can’t get over our breakup.

    The biggest hassle is a mailbox packed to the point of absurdity.

    My first naive idea is that mailboxes should have a “flip the card” concept just like a Brazilian steakhouse.

    Of course, this would likely translate as a pile up at final distribution of the offending materials. So, perhaps it would have to be something slightly more elegant at the postmaster initial routing level.

  14. Paul Kapustka

    Sure you can recycle the stuff but we got so many catalogs this past holiday season we could have heated Maine by burning them all. What gets me is that if you order something online, you immediately start getting catalogs — talk about not responding to customer preferences!

    And then don’t forget affiliates — hey, if they ordered sweaters well then they will love boots. And don’t get me started on kids’ stuff. I’d bet the first major retailer that makes a point of not printing catalogs will get a lot of sales from folks who don’t want to contribute to the waste.

  15. The problem doesn’t seem that bad to me. It take me just a few seconds to sift through the mail and get the unwanted wood products into the recycle bin. You need a to develop a personal image recognition algorithm to identify quickly thing you need to throw away and those that you want to throw away (e.g., bills) but are forced to keep.

    BTW, did you notice that rebate checks are packaged like junk mail? Save the rebaters some money.

    Finally, it looks like you try to project your own behavioral targeting rules on jcrew. Who knows, maybe they have data that shows that relentless sending of catalogs has some benefits, e.g., brand recognition.
    This may give catalog retailers too much credit, but the fact that they are still in business means that they are doing something right.

  16. Michael Madison

    Better yet, wouldn’t real spam filtering be nice. Even if mail took say an extra day or two to reach my house… USPO should consider filtering services. Where you can white-list all of your bills and blacklist certain categories of junk. Any service doing that would make a ton of money. Perhaps could even sell opt-out information back to the originators of the spam.

  17. N.C

    That would be fine if there was a single item for women that was bought by me. In other words I have been a shopper with them for about 5 years, and not a single piece of women’s clothing – doesn’t that kinda say: dude’s single.

  18. I could be giving JCrew way too much credit here, but is there any chance they are sending you a women’s wear catalogue because they know you’re a man who already buys the items he actually needs (khakis), the items suggest you are middle age, and the combination of the previous data suggests it is a good idea to send you a catalogue that would encourage you to spend money on your wife?

  19. Agreed.

    I signed up for Green Dimes, a startup which claims they can reduce your junk mail and will plant a tree every month for every person who uses their service.

    I still get junk mail, though it does seem like I get less.

    The unique thing about the Green Dimes service (aside from the tree planting) is that they periodically ask for you to be removed from all the major junk mailers. Most services are a one-time removal, and you then find your way back on a few months later.