CHICAGO — You can find a bright spot in the recession as close as your mailbox: There are far fewer hefty catalogs, bulging coupon packets, unwanted credit card offers and glossy fliers clogging it up.
Thanks to the economic downturn and rising shipping costs, junk mail volume was down 16 percent in the nine months ending in June compared with the same period a year earlier, on pace for the steepest annual decline in decades.
Businesses that are still sending junk mail are sending less of it — shrinking their catalogs and using thinner paper to save money. It's a sign stores are still struggling, but it also means less paper to toss in the garbage or lug to the recycling bin.
"I get excited for mail, and then I look at it, and it's just trash," said Nicole Soto, a mother of two in Winchester, Mass., who hates junk mail so much she joined a service to help her cut down even further.
"At the end of the day, I don't like the idea of so much being wasted," she said. "And I'm the one who feels like I'm doing the wasting, because I'm the one who has to put it in the recycle bin."
Williams-Sonoma Inc., parent company of mailbox mainstays Pottery Barn and West Elm, plans to cut in half the number of pages in its catalogs by 2011. It also plans to target the customers who are most likely to spend.
J. Crew Group Inc. cut its catalog circulation by 27 percent earlier this year. Crate & Barrel and the parent company of the Victoria's Secret catalog are tweaking their mail strategy.
Fewer credit card solicitations are going out, too. About 1.4 billion fewer were mailed last year than in 2007, a decline big enough to account for a quarter of the overall drop in junk mail.
Market research firm Synovate says the decrease is accelerating this year. As the global credit crisis took hold, lenders also cut way back on direct mail offers for home equity loans and mortgage refinancing.
The reprieve from overstuffed mailboxes will probably end as the economy revives. Catalogs, pamphlets and fliers remain among the cheapest and most effective ways to market and sell products and draw new shoppers into stores.
Catalogs, on average, generate $7 in sales for every dollar it takes to publish and mail them, industry data show. They also give customers a taste of a store's carefully cultivated image, like the modern-yet-unpretentious aesthetic of Crate & Barrel or the all-American preppy flair of J. Crew.
Web sites and e-mail promotions are growing in popularity and are far cheaper for businesses — they get a $45 return on every dollar — but they fall short of catalogs in drumming up new business.
"When you go farther into the Web site, you get a great assortment of products, but it's hard to keep up with that lifestyle feel," said Neil O'Keefe, a vice president of multichannel segments at the Direct Marketing Association. "But with a catalog, with every page you turn, you're able to convey that lifestyle and that brand."
Among those hit hardest as businesses cut back on direct mail is the already struggling U.S. Postal Service. Junk mail, which the post office calls standard mail, accounted for about a fourth of its revenue in 2008.
The postal service raised its rates for junk mail last year and again this spring, but it still made $200 million less from junk mail last year than it did in 2007, and this year's decline could be even bigger.
Before 2007, when the post office handled more than 103 billion pieces, junk mail had climbed almost every year since 1971.
For the near future, at least with retail sales still slow and consumer credit still tight, your mailbox will probably stay roomier.
Blyth Inc., a mail-order retailer that sends out 120 million catalogs a year under brands such as Miles Kimball and Exposures, has cut pages and trimmed circulation about 10 percent, dropping its least dependable customers.
"When the economy starts to pick up, we will be less conservative," said Stan Krangel, president of Blyth's Internet and catalog division. "But that hasn't started to happen just yet."