direct mail, Marketing, USPS

Finally Closing The Mail Gap

Out of town, or at the office, consumers can check their mailbox.

The USPS may be experiencing the continuing shrinkage in mail volumes, especially after the election season spike of 2016. But despite the trend to digital, the folks at L’Enfant Plaza, DC 20590 have come up with a winning service, “Informed Delivery”.

Householders and businesses can receive emails daily reporting what letters have been mailed to them.

You may have thought that Facebook or Instagram are the leading purveyors of new photography– the daily delivery of selfies, restaurant plates, goofy pets and family outings. In fact, it’s the USPS.  It takes approximately 411,000,000 new pictures every day.

The images are emailed, and also displayed on the user’s web portal.

The automated sorting process for letters relies on instantaneous scanning of a bar code, or a ZIP code. In 2016, Americans dropped 150 billion pieces into the USPS mail stream, and the sortation machinery looked at every one of those pieces and took a quick picture of the bar code or ZIP.

Until recently, those images were probably trashed a nano-second later. But then someone, a marketer, an engineer, a postal clerk, thought, “Hey, we took a picture, let’s post it!” Pardon the pun.

Automation machinery scans the incoming letter-sized mail.

Thus, the invention of Informed Delivery.

Every day, we at our household, receive an email from the USPS advising us of letter-sized mail making its way to us. The email includes an individual JPG of each piece, in black and white.

Now, you may feel that this is a weak attempt, a grasping at straws by a struggling old school business attempting to fight the digital tides. To me, it is enlightened genius. In a move that is worthy of a jiu jitsu artist’s praise, the USPS is using the power of digital to elevate its analog medium.

Every day a USPS email sends a photo album of coming mail.

Christmas Comes Early
For people at home, Informed Delivery may eliminate the excitement and anticipation of walking to the mailbox. ‘Kind of like peeking at your Christmas presents under the tree a few days before the event. Still, the service lets you know that a letter, check or invoice you are waiting for is definitely on the way. It also allows you to look at your mailbox, or mail-on-hold while you are out of town. ‘Kind of like scanning your voice mail–and you know you do that.

Many Happy Returns
Direct marketers will love Informed Delivery. Rather than waiting for the physical replies to show up from their latest mailing, they can see the reply envelopes as soon as the consumer drops it back in the mail. Admittedly, marketers can get digital reports now of bar coded reply mail, but Informed Delivery shows which replies, as there may be many outgoing mailings occurring simultaneously.

The USPS harnesses a digital app…who knew??

A Stronger Pitch
Every marketer considers the orchestration of messaging. We want to integrate email, social media and direct mail to complement a retail sales event. Informed Delivery alerts consumers by email of a coming promotion. The front of the envelope is the ideal canvas for the first tease of the event.

Intelligence At HQ
It should be pointed out, that if I have a dashboard of my incoming mail, so does the USPS. While you may worry that the USPS knows what I get by mail, I don’t. But if postal reform ever does get passed, the USPS may be able to offer user privileges to recipients based on the volumes of mail received. After all, if you do receive a lot of mail, you are a likely advocate of mail delivery, and to the USPS, that’s a high-five.

Kudos to the USPS on this latest innovation.  My bet is that as it takes hold, it will be leveraged, much to the benefit of one of America’s oldest and revered institutions.

Thanks for reading and sharing! If you want to see the Informed Delivery package, click on this!

(All pictures shamelessly taken from the USPS email and my personal portal.)

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Culture, direct mail, Marketing

USPS: It’s Worth The Weight

Flipping through old photo albums is a fearsome task. We used to look better. The forces of gravity and time didn’t seem so obvious.

The post office isn’t immune from these effects either, but it is still eye-opening to see how direct mail has aged with some elegance.

Direct mail dropped 22% in the past ten years, but First Class dropped even more: 37%.

I took a moment to compare 2016 USPS results against 2006. If you are a USPS employee, a printer, or a person who lives by the mailbox, read on.  By the way, I converted these to a normal calendar year.

We all associate the USPS with letter mail: invoices, statements, and personal mail. This past year, the USPS delivered 62 billion First Class letters. Ten years ago– 98 billion letters…a 37% drop in personal mail.

On the other hand, direct mail only dropped 23 billion pieces, or 22%.

But here is where direct marketers have managed to carve out a path to serve some 150 million homes and businesses with advertising every day.

Direct mailers have managed to make a respectable living with the USPS by slimming down. While the rest of the world has acknowledged that our bodies are bigger than in the past, direct mail has successfully dropped a few sizes.

To wit: in 2006, the average piece of direct mail weighed 1.86 ounces.  By last year, that had slipped 15% to 1.55 ounces.

Direct Mail has slimmed down in the past decade.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it reveals a lot about the reading public.  Direct mail designers have essentially cut down on paper and ink.

Envelopes are smaller, and contain fewer pieces.  In fact, Flats, which are larger than 6-1/8″ by 11-1/2″, dropped a staggering 51% in the last 10 years, down from 13 billion pieces to 6.3 billion.

The landfill protesters and tree huggers have to be thrilled.  But despite their glee, most direct mail is entirely recyclable, and much of it is made from post consumer waste paper anyway.

The super-sized Flat, large enough to hold a placemat is fading.

The rapid weight loss has provided a financial dividend for the USPS.  In 2006, the revenue per ounce was $0.107.  Ten years later it is $0.139, which is 12 points better than the rate of inflation.

The irony of the slimmed-down direct mail piece is that the USPS charges the same postage for a 1-ounce letter as it does for 3-1/2 ounces.  This would be the same as your favorite airline designing all the seats for a 300-pound row mate.  You know that is not the case, but the USPS is much more generous.

Given that allowance, it would make sense for direct mail designers to plump up their product.  Postage is the highest proportion of the in-mail cost, yet it is not leveraged.  Instead, parsimonious design has cut out the frills and treats that used to adorn productive direct mail.

My trips to the mailbox are disappointing.  It’s all two-dimensional post cards.

New age designers have lost the urge to embellish the kit, forsaking the 3.5 ounce opportunity to “load it up” like these.

What you don’t see anymore are great works of art that pleased and intrigued the reader.

The stuffed envelopes have been flattened.  The labels and stickers are gone.  The samples are gone.  The origami is muted.  Member cards, scrapped.  The shiny foils no longer announce a prize.  The extra letters and testimonials are removed.  The textures are smooth and sterile.  Reply envelopes?  Naah….go to the website.  Brochure?  Website.   Buck slip?  Phifff–what’s a buck slip??

So direct mail has entered its age of demur elegance: slim, sleek and stylistically boring, but somehow pleasing to the agency head who doesn’t absorb sentences longer than a gnat’s breath.

An experienced designer once told me, “you will make more money by adding to a kit than you will by taking away.”  What would he think today?

But let’s give the contemporary designer their kudos.  They have won the war on weight, but they have lost their way on  beauty and bucks.

 

Thanks for reading!  Please share with your direct mail associates.   Just like people who have rediscovered the beauty of vinyl records, there will be a time when “gangbuster” direct mail will return. 

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Culture, Media, Thank You, Thanks

Running Off The Cliff

wile-e-coyote-2You know the Wiley Coyote scene where he runs off the cliff in hot pursuit of the Roadrunner. There, hung in blind suspension of disbelief, he looks at the camera before reality sinks in.

Then he falls with a vviipp or a boink. We chuckle happily at his dusty, bruised remains in the canyon below.

So it is that I now admit to a similar, sad and painful realization.

Last December 6 I advised you that despite the falling volumes of the post office, one thing blossomed like a fresh spring crocus on a sunny hill… our continued, warm-hearted custom of sending greeting cards.

Stamps 965 copy (1)Christmas, Hannukah, Thanksgiving, Halloween were all good reasons to pick up our pens and write.

I detailed in colorful charts how “Single Piece Cards and Letters” sky-rocketed in the last quarter of the year, from October to December. Poring over the figures from the regular USPS reports, I found that the numbers went up, even while general mail volumes went down.

It was, as I said, revealing our brighter side.

Mail may be an antiquity, but by golly, we are sending a card anyway.

wiley's canyonRevisiting that article, I discovered to my shock and dismay, that I had reported on revenues, not pieces. Aaarrrggghh!

Yes, patient reader, I misled you, big time.

The truth is, Cards and Letters for Q4, October 1-December 31, remain virtually the same share of the total, for the years 2004 and 2014— 27.5% to 27.7%.  Meanwhile the whole category tumbled 55% over ten years.

Do they jump up in the last quarter as our good intentions begin to materialize?

Yes, as always.  In 2004, an uptick of 18%, and 2014, up 22%, just in time to make delivery by Christmas.

But who’s going to calibrate a blip…a minor swelling…a mild burp in goodwill based on these numbers?  The fact is, we have laid down our pens.

With that, Wiley Coyote looks down into the abyss.  In his descent, he contemplates what went wrong.

wile-e-coyote-off-cliff-largeYes, email for sure.  Good grief, why send a thank you card for a dinner when a two-liner on Gmail will tick that off the list?  Want to bang off a birthday greeting fast?  Hit “send” and it’s done.   And is there any need to spin post card carousels in some tourist trap when you can celebrate your vacation on Facebook?   Hardly.  And so much for mailing pics of the Grandkids when there’s Instagram.

“Ahhh, to heck with it,” Wiley concludes as the ground rises before him, except… there is one factor to consider…

The physical delivery of the letter made a big, personal-brand impact.   When someone took the time to compose, and write, in ink, on a nice card, address and lick an envelope, buy a pretty stamp, and find a mail box, it communicated in ways far beyond digital.

It’s a nice thought.

~Splat.

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direct mail, Economics, Marketing, Media

Awakenings: What Happens When USPS Cuts Prices

Spoiler Alert: This Is All About Direct Mail Math

It was not a well publicized announcement, 10 days before Christmas, that the USPS will most likely cut the price of a first class stamp by 2 cents, April, 2016.  That’s a 4% cut!

Whether the consumer figures out that a letter will mail for only 47 cents is a question, but for the direct mail community, the news is big.

First of all, direct mailers don’t talk cents. They communicate in thousands. (‘000’s.) A 2-cent drop in mail cost is worth $20 per thousand pieces mailed.

Hopefully the marketing folks at USPS have now awakened to the merciless mathematics of direct mail. In the civilian world, when we experience a cost of living increase, we suck it in, or look for a raise in pay to compensate.

In direct mail however there is a brick wall facing an increase in mailing costs.   The reality is, mailers don’t manage by total program cost. Rather, they manage by cost per response.

For instance, if a charity spends $1,000 to mail 3,000 letters, it is because they expect to get a 2% response…60 donations, at a cost of $16.66 each.

That cost per response (CPR) is bedrock..an anchor around which all other budgeting decisions are made. So when the USPS issues a 1% increase in postage, the CPR goes up, which is unacceptable.

The Story Behind The Story

When the post office raises its prices, we experience the inelasticity of direct mail performance, because mailers must preserve that cost per response.  The only way to do that is to spend less on something else, and that is exactly what happens: smaller envelopes, fewer pages, cheaper paper, less ink, for example.

The bogeyman in this reduction process is that the cheaper the package, the lower the response, which drives up the cost per response again!

The end game option in this vicious circle is to cut out lower responding markets, by mailing fewer pieces, and diverting funds to other direct media.

None of this helps the USPS.

Mail Trends 2008-2015 Prove The Point

In 2007 the USPS delivered 104 billion pieces of direct mail, its highest performance in a 240-year history.  Next year, the U.S. economy had a collapse, and there was a 4.3% drop in direct mail.  In 2009, there was another drop of 16.8%, eroding 21 billion pieces over two years.

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From 2007 to 2015 Direct Mail volume shrank 24 billion pieces.

Revenues likewise fell from $20.8 B in 2007 to $17.3 in 2009.  $3.5 billion dollars–gone.  Looking for cash, the USPS raised its prices nearly 13% from 2006 to 2009.

The bottom line is that the USPS has held direct mail revenues in the $17 B tier ever since, with three more price hikes from 2009 all the way up to 2015.  Its actual revenue per piece has gone up from 20 cents to 22 during that time.  Direct mail volumes have stabilized around 80 billion pieces, down 23% from its stellar 2007 year.

What You Don’t See

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Revenue per piece grew 10% while weights decreased 13%.

While the USPS has been able to weather the economic storm, the quality of mail has deteriorated.   In 2007 the average piece weighed 1.83 ounces.   In 2015 that shrank to 1.60 ounces, a 13% decline in paper, ink, pages and envelope.  More post cards, fewer envelopes, fewer flats.

The irony in this is that the USPS is actually earning more money for every ounce delivered: 11 cents in 2007, versus 13.8 cents in 2015, a 25% increase.

The Good News

A 4% reduction in postage in 2016 may not mean much to the consumer, but to the direct mailer, it opens the door to better creative, design, and production.  These lead to better response, lower cost per response, which drives up mail volumes.  Whew!

This price cut is good, good news.

PS: Kudos to you for getting through this important math lesson!  Please share.

PPS: You can check all the numbers by reviewing the USPS Revenues, Pieces and Weights report which they faithfully publish very quarter.

 

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direct mail, Marketing

Your First Impression Won’t Be Your Last

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St. Joseph’s Indian School delivers the piece de resistance.

You know it’s Fall when the big fundraising kits stuff your mailbox. This year we have a surfeit of gifts from direct mail fundraisers.

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Father Flanagan’s Boystown stickers for identifying anything that moves.

Years ago the pioneers in the business presented us with address stickers.

These we have dutifully paid for and have now labeled every moveable item in our home: CDs, iPads, iPods, iPhones, chargers, golf clubs, cassettes, Walkmen, books, staplers, rulers, vinyl… luckily we don’t own a pet.

The ante was raised by the March Of Dimes who gratuitously presented us with a small monthly stipend of ten cents: a shiny new dime pasted to a donor form.

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Food For The Poor’s coins… how can you just pocket them?

That munificence has been outpaced by Food For The Poor who made change for the dime, and sends us a penny and a shiny new Jefferson nickel. That’s a 40% cutback, but insertion is more costly, so it’s a wash.

Not to be outdone, Disabled American Vets provides a 9×12 calendar, which we can place beside the 10×20 calendar from Boys Town.

Of course, wall calendars are bulky, so we are grateful to St. Joseph’s Indian School which gave us a 4×6 calendar booklet for the purse. I am waiting for the 3×5 that fits in my shirt pocket.

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There’s no excuse for not writing….here’s a VFW pen.

The mailing industry is of a generous culture though. With all these other possessions, we have also received dozens of greeting cards: whole writing kits, with pens, to reach out and greet someone– anyone.

Oblate Missions has sent us so many Christmas cards it may be easier if we send them our Christmas mailing list instead.

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Catholic Relief Services’ prayer medallions.

You can’t blame an organization which does its part in reinforcing the goodwill that blossoms from receiving a greeting card in the mail.  I am all for it.

As a sidenote, the USPS post office in Libertyville has a well designed rack of greeting cards for sale.

This one cartoon I loved for its text:

Outer Cover: “Wow! You got a real, honest-to-goodness card! Not a text.  Not an email!”
Inside Caption: “Wow! It has an inside too! It just gets better and better!”

In one of their early bold moves, Disabled American Veterans pasted 45 cents in stamps onto their reply envelopes. Overflowing in confidence that once we saw the postage in place, we would feel obligated to fill the envelope.

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Marines Toys For Tots and Wounded Warriors provide your stamps.

Even gutsier, Wounded Warrior Project and Marine Toys For Tots are paper clipping custom 47-cent stamps to their letters.   This is very expensive, as Stamps.com provides these stamps at a hefty premium.

The strategy works though.  Can one really use the stamp for anything other than a gift without a stab of guilt?

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To avoid being pressed into service, British sailors eyed their brew from the bottom up.

The gifting brings to mind the old conscription practices of the 1700’s when British sailors were pressed into service when they drank from a tankard of ale, only to find the King’s shilling in the bottom.   By unwittingly enjoying the beverage, the sailor had been hired.

I think of that clever ploy as I pile up the loot, especially the coins and stamps.

The mailers know what they are doing. Despite all common sense, they have proven that the unsolicited gift still wrests outlandish response rates and donations. And once you are hooked, they will be back until they end up in your Will.

That’s right. Planned Giving is a part of every established fundraising strategy, and if you asked, many organizations can tell you which of their huge bequests started with a direct mail gift, years before.

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Fleece gloves… probably a postal nightmare, but still handy.

This season’s most impressive packages included one from Kids Wish Network, which sent along a pair of fleece gloves.  They arrived in a lumpy wrinkled paper envelope I am sure that the post office would rate as “baggage class”.

But how do you throw those out?   What tight fisted non-donor could wear them, especially when the writer suggests: “When you use the deluxe fleece gloves I sent you, I hope you you’ll remember Wish Kids like Tabitha…” .

The penultimate delivery however, the cream of the crop, the ne plus ultra, is the bulging envelope from St. Joseph’s Indian School.  No doubt USPS rated this one as “duffel bag class”.  Inside we found the usual and generous complement of address labels, gift stickers, 4×5 note pad, 5×7 note pad, pocket calendar, wall calendar, personalized calendar card, and 3 shrink wrapped greeting cards.

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St. Joe’s mystical Dream Catcher, not to be ignored.

In addition however there was a most unique and unusual item, a genuine facsimile of a Lakota Indian Dream Catcher.

The Dream Catcher is a little hand-made assembly of string net, naugahide, beads and feathers.  Mounted on die-cut foam core, it is shrink wrapped with colorful operating instructions ending with: “to be hung on the tipi or lodge and on a baby’s cradle board”.

I have to admit, I had to dig through pounds of newspapers and old phone bills to retrieve this package from our recycling bin.  There is something especially foreboding about disposing of the St. Joseph’s piece so casually.

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The Marines Toys For Tots medallion, struck with the USMC shield and Semper Fidelis on the other side.

Yes, in the past, I have taken all the coins, scribbled on  lots of notepads, hung countless calendars, and stuck hundreds of stickers without a moment’s guilt, or nearly so, but the Dream Catcher had me netted and nettled.  This one item–which I would never purchase on a dare–clinched the deal.  Just how unlucky could my life turn out if I didn’t give due respect?

So it’s hanging over my DAV Certificate of Merit.

 

Thanks for reading!   I hope you find your charity of choice this season.  These organizations are especially effective, and they mind their pennies too.

 

 

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Marketing, Media

USPS: Taking A Retail Moment

USPS4

The USPS card display is there to capture the impulse to do something nice.

Kudos to the merchant-minded individual who suggested that the Post Office should sell greeting cards in their lobby. After all, if you want to receive letters, you need to send them too.

Part invites! Looking for a venue.

Party invites! Looking for a venue.

It turns out that the USPS does an audit every year to measure how long we wait in line. Two minutes is the national average. During that time we have a variety of scenery to peruse.

Beyond the oddities of humanity that lean over the counter to ship parcels bound up like mummified hat boxes, or to mail extravagantly addressed purple letters, or the restive small children that roll across the floor, we can look at the card displays.

The USPS selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The USPS selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The selection isn’t anywhere close to that found at a card store, and that’s good. We only have two minutes to make a choice. But the cards available still represent a middle of the road attempt at gentle humor, quiet sympathy, and friendly reminders.

Next to the greeting cards is a rack of retail gift cards, perfect for the last minute desperate search for an overdue birthday gift.

Stationery sets as starter kits. After all, if you want to get letters, you have to write them.

Stationery sets as starter kits. After all, if you want to get letters, you have to write them.

Across the lobby is another display of stationery sets, and party invitations.
When we are there to pick up our mail, or buy stamps, we have a brief opportunity to snatch a couple of cards, and whip them off to someone who is on our mind at that precise moment.

The USPS is demonstrating a simple case of vertical integration here. They are providing the total service: stationery, gifts, attractive postage stamps and delivery.

What better way to merchandise the universal service that gives you access to over 150,000,000 addresses across the continent?

The next time you visit your post office, take a look around. This is the perfect place to yield to the impulse to greet and treat someone, two blocks over, or on the other side of the country.

It only takes a couple minutes.

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direct mail, Marketing

How Naked Wines Grabbed Me Fast

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Shutterfly books enclosed, along with some very attractive package inserts.

Attending a direct marketing conference in 2012, a confederate sat across from me at dinner and said, “You know where the real money is? Package Inserts.”

Totally hooked on direct mail through the USPS, I had no idea what he was referring to.

He placed a finished lamb lollipop on his plate, wiped his hands, and drew on a full-bodied cabernet that we had supplied for his enjoyment.

The “PI Guy” went on to describe how he identified ripe consumer markets by the goods they received in their mail boxes and doorsteps.

“A mail order buyer spends $150 on cashmere sweaters and nightgowns from Lands End.   They are a perfect fit for an offer of another product worth $150, say, home furnishings or specialty foods.  You should try these stuffed mushroom caps; they’re exquisite.”

“Yeah, so the buyer…?”

He eyed a medley of greek olives hiding on his plate.  “Well, they clearly trust direct mail, and mail order, and they are willing to spend $150 with a complete stranger by all definitions.”

“You have a qualified, high spending prospect?” I suggested.

“Bing!   So I include a sales offer in those delivery packages from another marketer.  These are called package inserts.   And the buyers are highly responsive.”  The olives were popped into his mouth like Cheerios lining up for the bowl.

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My Mom’s book, a prized collection bound into print.

Fast forward to March 2015.   I had just finished designing a book displaying 100 images of my mother’s water colors.   I had sent the files to Shutterfly, and after some edits and second runs, had spent $500 on a number of beautiful editions of “Nancy Brown”.

When the books arrived on our doorstep, I was excited.  Opening the box, I set aside a handful of coupons to get at the books.   Later, as I was collecting all the packaging, I looked at the coupons– package inserts– to see an incredible bargain from a company called Naked Wines.

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A ridiculously attractive offer from Naked Wines, by way of Shutterfly.

Naked Wines included a $100 discount off a case of wine.   Shutterfly threw in another 25% if I acted fast on the offer.   Before I knew it, I had registered with Naked Wines, and ordered their starter case.  12 bottles, $75.

Naked Wines immediately sent me an email saying I had joined a select group of “Angels”.   More on that later.  The wine was promised to arrive soon.

Yesterday I found a giant box from Naked Wines on our doorstep.  As promised, 12 bottles were inside.

The power of package inserts can’t be denied.   They are meeting the buyer at the point of actual delivery, who is flushed with the excitement of their purchase.

Visualize the moment:  your shopper, opening a heavily branded container, sees the object of their desires and congratulates themselves for being an independent-thinking, smart spending, shop-at-home consumer.   Simultaneously, they flip through a set of offers targeted at their jugular: quality, self-indulging items that belong beside the initial purchase.

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Naked Wines delivers! 12 bottles, $75 bucks.

The Naked Wines delivery did not disappoint when it arrived.  12 bottles for $75 bucks…how could it?  But more about their deal another day.   The big winner was the package insert guy who tied Shutterfly and Naked Wines together to find me in a moment of oenological weakness.

This is a huge business opportunity.  And here’s why: between USPS, Fedex and UPS, Americans received over 7.3 billion packages last year.  That’s about 23 million flushed and excited customers opening their front doors every day to grasp their prize.

The enterprising marketer only needs to find those direct marketing companies who have some cross affinity, and make a deal to provide an inventory of package inserts for every carton that goes out the door.

From there, they wait for the orders to come in.

Thanks for reading!   I have to tell you about the Naked Wines deal.  A marketing achievement, and well packaged too.   But that will wait until next time.   First, I need to examine my purchase.

 

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