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    Dogged by catalogs, pair create pile

    Trapped in a database dungeon, a couple collect evidence of the persistence of direct marketers.

    By PATRICK COOPER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    In Anne and Rick Haskins' garage is a temporary monument to consumer culture, a tower that stands about 8 feet high and weighs 355 pounds.

    It consists of 900 mail-order catalogs they received over the last year or so.

    They ordered from about three of them.

    From Dec. 26, 1999, to Jan. 31, 2001, the St. Petersburg family saved every catalog that came in the daily mail. It was an experiment to gauge the severity of junk mail, a problem that has been taken up by several national advocacy groups.

    Even in the beginning, they knew the number would be high, but they were still stunned by the result. "I thought maybe a couple hundred," Anne Haskins said Wednesday evening. But 900-some? "This is insane."

    She chalked the number up to culture.

    "I just think it's a reflection of America's consumerism and marketing," said Haskins, who is the press secretary for St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer.

    Talbots and Lands' End were the largest offenders, by the couple's count. Talbots sent them 49 catalogs; Lands' End sent 38. Coldwater Creek sent 30, the third most.

    The genesis for the project began with a post-Christmas Day shock. On Dec. 26, 1999, Anne Haskins said, "I opened up the mailbox and there were something like six catalogs."

    What disgusted the Haskins family is a nationwide problem, according to Jason Catlett, president and founder of Junkbusters, a New Jersey-based privacy advocacy group.

    "The direct marketing world sends about 70-billion pieces of direct mail annually," he said. If distributed evenly across the 270-million Americans, each person would receive more than 250 pieces a year.

    But two-thirds of the population never buys anything from a catalog, Catlett said, and as a result never ends up in massive direct mail databases. The rest of the public then feels the brunt.

    "Marketers have these tracking schemes whereby they pool information about who's buying and how much. Once you get into that big database, you're going to get far more than your fair share of catalogs," he said.

    But he and other opponents of direct marketing say consumers don't have to be slaves to the system.

    A person can opt out of the database used by most direct mailers by writing to the Direct Marketing Association's Preference Service, at P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY, 11735, or calling (212) 768-7277, ext. 1888.

    Companies that do not participate in the preference service must be contacted directly. If worse comes to worst, people have "a strong legal tool," Catlett said: U.S. Postal Service Form 1500.

    People can fill out the form -- available online and in some post offices -- attach it to any commercial solicitation and turn it in to any post office. Once the solicitor receives the form, it is required to stop mailing that person within 30 days.

    Although the form says it applies to "unwanted sexually oriented advertising," it can be applied to any unwanted advertising.

    The Haskins family wanted to save the catalogs to make a point, but they've had just about enough of them now.

    This is the end of the catalog affair in their house, Rick Haskins said, laughing. "If one goes in, one goes out."

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