January 15, 2004, 12:00 AM

As spam won’t abate, retailers ponder: What will replace e-mail?

“We’re about to kill one of the really wonderful things the Internet has created,” Monica Luechtefeld, executive vice president of e-commerce for Office Depot Inc., told the NRF’s “State of Retailing Online” session Monday.

Spam concerns just won’t go away. For nearly a year, legitimate marketers have fretted that abuses of e-mail marketing by unscrupulous marketers would kill e-mail as a marketing tool. And if comments at the NRF’s annual convention in New York City this week are any gauge, such concerns have not abated, even with the passage of federal legislation designed to combat e-mail abuse. “We’re about to kill one of the really wonderful things the Internet has created,” Monica Luechtefeld, executive vice president of e-commerce for Office Depot Inc., told the “State of Retailing Online” session. “Customers are not opening e-mails and they are not opting in to e-mail lists.”

“E-mail marketing is the topic of the moment,” agreed Elaine Rubin, chair of Shop.org and senior vice president of strategy and business development at 1-800-Flowers.com. Spam, she added, “is a tremendous threat to all of us.”

The problem is twofold, Luechtefeld said, with threats to deliverability of e-mail as more consumers and their ISPs adopt anti-e-mail measures and in consumers’ growing unwillingness to open e-mail messages.

Luechtefeld reported that Office Depot is already looking for the marketing method that will replace e-mail. “What worked for you last year won’t work for you this year,” she said, “so we are working hard in the replacement for e-mail marketing.”

When moderator Kate Delhagen of Forrester Research, asked what that was, Luechtefeld replied, ”I’m not telling.”

Lorna Borenstein, vice president and general manager of eBay Inc., noted that blogging--the creation of commentary and reports in web logs by independent entities--and social networking--a sophisticated form of word of mouth--are potential replacements. But, she added, “No one has figured out how to harness them.” She predicted: “We’ll see a lot more use of them, with great benefit to retailers.” Added Rubin: “This is the next generation of community.”

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