Not yet up to speed

Nov 01, 1998 10:30 PM  By

Fifteen years ago, the list delivery process was clunky, undependable, and slow, taking weeks rather than days. Today, some catalog mailers claim, despite the available technology, list delivery is still too often clunky, undependable, and slow.

“Some firms will deliver lists within five days, and with others you can give a 20-day lead time and the tape still doesn’t show up,” says Pat Hudak, new customer acquisition manager for outdoor sporting goods cataloger Cabela’s.

Amit Mitra, director of direct response for business cataloger Viking Office Products, pegs the problem as being on the owner side. For many firms renting their lists, he says, delivery is a low priority. “Most companies only rent their lists because they have to if they want others to rent to them.”

But David Schwartz, president of list firm 21st Century Marketing, contends that “almost all rental orders are driven by the date clients want them delivered.” And while Schwartz agrees in principle with Mitra, admitting that list owners tend not to have the same sense of urgency as mailers, he believes that delivery problems occur primarily with new clients, or “if the mailer is looking for new terms and conditions, and all parties are waiting for a list owner to make a decision.”

Other mailers, however, blame sluggish list delivery on the list processors and the equipment they’re using. “Most list runs are handled in a mainframe environment by operators who may not understand what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for,” says John Worsley, circulation director of bicycling equipment cataloger/retailer Performance Bicycle. “As a result, formatting can get messed up, cartridges can be mislabeled, you may get the wrong file, and often there is no way to tell if you got the selects you asked for.”

Because of the potential for slow delivery or mistakes, some mailers simply order extra lists. That way, “for a big mailer like us, if we don’t get a few lists of 5,000 or 10,000 names, it’s not the end of the world,” Mitra says.

And about billing… Beyond delivery and order processing problems, list billing can present its own frustrations. “It’s hard to figure out selects, zip charges, and tape charges,” Mitra says, “and then try to keep track of what you negotiated with whom.” Although brokers have entire departments to manage billing, in many cases, the process isn’t automated.

“What would make sense,” Mitra says, “is a consistent structure with just two prices: a base price and a volume discount price. Forget the selects and the other additional charges-you just pick what you want and order it.” This could drive up prices slightly, he says, but it would be worth the extra cost for saving time, stress, and hassle.

And Performance Bicycle’s Worsley calls the typical $25 per-tape charge-the fee for each tape used in the final list output-a “joke,” especially since brokers pay about $8 per tape. The charge would be eliminated if lists were delivered electronically. (Some firms are already hooked up to Wamnet, an ISDN-based electronic list delivery system, but they pay a $75 premium to have their materials delivered that way, Hudak says.)

The Web to the rescue? Some catalogers think that Internet delivery of names could solve many a snafu. “I would prefer an environment in which brokers have their own Websites and you could get your own counts,” Worsley says. “You just hit a button, and the file gets sent to you. The labeling and documentation at that point are self-explanatory.”

Most service bureaus, Worsley claims, are installing software for electronic delivery through file transfer protocol (FTP) over the Web. But they’re at the mercy of the list owners, who must also be able to deliver lists via FTP. Once everyone is in sync, FTP will become the preferred method of list delivery, proponents say. But until then, mailers should continue budgeting several weeks for delivery of names, just in case.