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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/30/2008 5:55:37 PM ET 2008-01-30T22:55:37

It’s time to put all of last year’s holiday catalogs in the recycle bin. My wife and I got 40 of them, even though we haven’t ordered from a catalog in years. What a waste!

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We don’t buy cookies, but Mrs. Fields sent us a catalog. We don’t smoke, but the Famous Smoke Shop catalog landed in our mailbox. And I have no idea why we got the AutoSport catalog.

I find it especially annoying when a company sends more than one catalog during the holiday shopping season. We got three from Brookstone and seven from Harry and David. That’s just silly.

“You buy something and they just keep hammering you with catalogs,” says Kayla Black of Bainbridge Island, Wash. “I don’t need their paper. I can go online. But it’s kind of a drag to call every one of the catalog companies to cancel.”

Now there are two new and simple ways to reduce the stream of unwanted catalogs.

For the past 36 years, the Direct Marketing Association has made it possible to opt-out of mailing lists through its Mail Preference Service. DMA members send out about 80 percent of all advertising mail — catalogs, sweepstakes, and credit-card solicitations.

Until now, this was an all-or-nothing proposition; if you chose to opt out, your name would be removed from all DMA member mailing lists.

Three weeks ago, DMA rolled out an enhanced version of its DMAChoice Web site. The service is free and it lets you select which catalogs you want to drop. There are about 1,500 of them in the database.

Pat Kachura, senior vice president of corporate responsibility at the Direct Marketing Association, tells me the change was based on feedback. “We heard from consumers that they don’t want to opt out of all mail, they want to pick and choose.”

To use the site, you need to verify your identity by submitting your credit card number. Since the service is free, you will not be charged. DMA says it will not keep your personal information or use it for marketing purposes. Still, having to give my credit card to cancel a catalog bothers me.

"We think it's a problem," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "There are people who are not going to give out a credit card number to stop getting a catalog. I'd like to see them drop that request."

DMA says it’s looking at a better way to do this, but for now Kachura says, “this is the best authentication technology we can get.”

Another option
A new Web site, catalogchoice.org, was launched in October by a coalition of environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation. Already, more than half a million people have become members. So far, they’ve opted out of more than 6 million catalogs.

Laura Hickey of the National Wildlife Federation thinks the site will be good for the environment and business. “It will let companies mail smarter and more efficiently,” she says.

Margaret Auld-Louie of Golden, Colo., is a member. She likes being able to tell companies she doesn’t want their catalogs. “They’re not going to lose my business,” she says, “because if I want to know about their sales, I can sign up for their emails."

How the site works
It’s really easy to use. Just sign up for a free account — all it takes is your name and e-mail — and the mailing address where you receive your catalogs.

Now you’re ready to choose the merchants whose catalogs you don’t want. This is not a one-click operation. You can’t opt-out of all catalogs at once. You must pick and choose the ones you want to eliminate. This was deliberate.

“This is not about stopping all catalogs or messing with a merchant’s relationship with their customers,” says Kate Sinding, senior attorney for the NRDC. “It’s about eliminating the unwanted catalogs people are getting.”

Currently 117 merchants have signed up with Catalog Choice. They have agreed to honor requests made through the site. These include two of the nation’s biggest catalog mailers, L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, as well as Tiffany and Company, REI, Urban Outfitters, and Office Depot.

“We are committed to being responsive to our customers and responsible for the environment,” says Tom Vogl, vice president of marketing for REI. “It’s about choice and about ease,” he says.

Gaiam, a Colorado mail order company that specializes in earth-friendly products, joined because it believes the site offers a good balance between customer service and the risk of losing business.

“We don’t want to take out too many clients,” says circulation manager Cheryl Zotter. “But if a customer does not want a catalog, we don’t want to send it to them.”

Catalogchoice.org will also forward your wishes to about a thousand other catalog companies, but there is no guarantee those non-member companies will comply with your request.

My two cents
Catalogs are not going away. They move a lot of products. And many people — especially those who live in rural areas or don’t have Internet access — rely on them.

The new DMAChoice site is a great improvement. Making it free was another good decision. But some people might prefer using the Catalog Choice Web site because it does not require them to enter a credit card number. Hopefully, this verification system will change. And hopefully more direct marketers will join Catalog Choice.

Reducing waste, helping the environment, and honoring customer choice is a big job. There’s plenty of room for both sites.

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