Marketing spam explodes as retailers send a flood of email messages


Kristi Petersen Schoonover loves Bath and Body Works, but they are on her last nerve.

The company sends her notifications multiple times a day, every day. Did she know Wallflower air fresheners were going on sale? How about now? Did she get one yet? This is the last chance!

Schoonover, a receptionist and fiction writer from Danbury, Conn., said the deluge has been intense this holiday shopping season — and much worse than in years past. The Wednesday before Black Friday, she got 86 promotional emails during her 25-minute commute to work.

“It’s become abusive,” Schoonover said. “We are already overwhelmed, and all this is doing is making people run away.”

She has stopped buying from certain companies because of their constant emails. She turned off notifications from Bath and Body Works, which did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

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According to HubSpot, a provider of sales and marketing software, 33 percent of marketers are sending weekly emails, and 26 percent send emails multiple times a month. And it could get worse: Career planning site Zippia concluded that an average of more than 333.2 billion emails were being sent and received daily in 2022 by businesses and consumers. Zippia’s researchers project an increase to 347.3 billion in 2023 and more than 376 billion by 2025.

Promotional emails don’t just come from past purchases. Now people get tapped just from visiting a website and looking at an item, said Richard C. Hanna, co-author of “Email Marketing In A Digital World,” and a marketing professor at Babson College.

“What’s interesting is that, if you read about best marketing practices for email, this is not the way to do it,” Hanna said.

Michigan business owner Adam Helfman said he recently started getting emails from a toothbrush company although he’d never bought any of its products. But he visited the website through a Facebook ad, and that triggered emails, he said.

Helfman, 54, is used to getting a lot of email at his company, a contractor recommendation site based in Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit. He typically receives about 200 emails a day, but about two weeks before Thanksgiving, that number exploded to more than 700 messages daily, mostly marketing spam.

“There was a lot of ‘Sign up now for a pre-Black Friday sale!’ and there was definitely a strategy, with some brands sending emails two, three times a day – some were once an hour,” Helfman said.

The worst email offender, Helfman said, was a company called True Classics, a men’s activewear company. Between Nov. 26 and Dec. 1, he had received at least 17 emails from them.

“It’s created an animosity between me and some companies where I just will not buy from them at all anymore,” he said. “There’s another company where I liked the brand but there were so many emails all day long, and they show up in your social media feeds and in online ads and it’s everywhere.”

A writer for The Washington Post reached out to True Classics and received promotional emails less than five minutes after simply visiting the site to obtain the media contact. The company initially offered to respond, but ultimately declined to comment to The Post.

The magic number of “touchpoints” that triggers a purchase or pushes a customer to unsubscribe from emails will be different for each person, marketing experts said. So companies try to track customers as much as possible.

“The moment you go to a website, you get tagged with a cookie that’s left on your computer, so now you get re-marketed over and over, because they want you to keep that particular brand in consideration,” Hanna said.

Because it’s so cheap to send automatic emails, companies are willing to risk alienating customers for as little as a 1 percent increase in total purchases, Hanna said. Even if the customer unsubscribes from a marketing list, they are back on it immediately if they visit the retailer’s website or order again.

Pandemic fueled marketing spam

To a certain extent, retailers’ interest in reaching the consumer has always been intense, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consultant specializing in consumer loyalty. But the pandemic exacerbated the push for app and email notifications as more people moved to online shopping, Passikoff said, adding that technology also made it easier than ever to reach customers.

Brand Keys this year surveyed 2,208 consumers ages 16 to 55, and asked them to rank the companies who contacted them the most. A similar survey was completed in 2018. Amazon ranked No. 1 both times. Macy’s was in second place this year, up from ninth in 2018. Groupon was No. 3 this time, dropping one spot.

Although Amazon sent the most emails, customers said they engaged with them more because they were personalized and often offered good news, Brand Keys found. For example, they might send an email refunding the customer 71 cents because the price of an item they bought went down, Passikoff said.

Under U.S. federal law, companies that send marketing emails must give consumers the option to opt-out of receiving them, and they must honor that request within 10 business days. Respondents to this year’s Brand Keys survey said many companies have made it easier to unsubscribe these days, with the link clearly at the top of the email. In previous years, people complained that the link to leave was often at the very bottom in tiny letters and in colors that made it hard to see, but Google’s popular Gmail service often automatically puts “Unsubscribe” links at the top of marketing emails these days.

But even a branding specialist gets sucked into the promotional minefield once in a while.

Passikoff ordered a wallet last year as a Christmas gift for his wife, and the result made him “terrifically happy.” The next day he got a survey, under the company president’s signature, asking how he found out about the business — a common technique for customer mining, Passikoff said.

“I know this stuff, but I thought okay, they did a good job, so I wrote and said my wife mentioned the brand and the stuff looked good, and I sent it in,” Passikoff said.

If the company had then followed up with a marketing email once a week, that would be okay, Passikoff said. But he has received two emails from the company every day since, and now he’s mad.

Although sending promotional emails is not new, the follow-up after a completed purchase has intensified from previous years, marketing experts said.

Schoonover, the receptionist from Danbury, said she picked up a dress she ordered from Kohl’s. She got an email from Kohl’s confirming that she picked up the dress before she left the store. She got another asking how she liked it before she got home.

“I want to know that you got my order and you sent my order,” she said of Kohl’s, which did not return messages seeking comment for this story. “I don’t need seven emails telling me a dude walked across the street to get the materials for the dress, and now you’ve got the box, and you’re putting it in the box.”

During the 15-minute conversation with The Washington Post, another 12 promotional emails from various companies arrived in Schoonover’s inbox.

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