Some Stores Finally Decide It’s a Bad Idea to Spam Customers

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The real Spam is much better than those unwanted e-mails.

Got an in-box clogged with ads from retailers? You’re not alone. In recent months, many stores have been sending customers promotional e-mails at a pace of more than one per day. Spam-happy retailers such as Neiman Marcus deluged subscribers with over 500 e-mails in 2011. But amid studies showing that consumers are growing less likely to read, click on, or even open messages from retailers, some stores are deciding it’s time to ease off the e-mail flood.

If anyone was to declare an official Spam Week, it would probably take place the week after Thanksgiving, a.k.a., Cyber Week. According to the tech marketing research firm Responsys, 87% of major online retailers sent out promotional e-mails on Cyber Monday, and on average, retailers sent 5.6 e-mails through the course of the seven-day period ending Friday, December 2. That 5.6 figure was 49% higher compared to the month before, and it was 27% higher than Cyber Week of 2010.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the top 100 retailers sent an average of 177 promotional e-mails to subscribers last year. Certain stores are far above average in this capacity. Lands’ End is estimated to have sent 376 e-mails, while Toys R Us sent 349.

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And Neiman Marcus? The high-end specialty retailer known for unusual, over-the-top gift items like a driveable cupcake and a life-size Lego replica of your significant other offers about as much Spam as that Spam-crazed café in the classic Monty Python skit. Last year, per the WSJ, Neiman Marcus sent subscribers 534 promotional e-mails, a rise of 30% since 2007.

It’s no mystery why retailers flood customers with e-mails. It’s cheap marketing, and considering that customers must subscribe to these messages, the messages are going to consumers who should have some level of interest in the store’s products and services.

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But the interest is waning. Whereas customers opened 19% of retailer e-mails in 2007, 12.5% were opened in 2011. Nicole Miller and J.C. Penney, which is undergoing a huge reinvention to become more customer-friendly, are among the stores that have decided that, in terms of promotional e-mails, less could be more. J.C. Penney has decreased e-mails from one per day to three per week, while Nicole Miller has scaled back e-mails from three to one weekly. The reason for the change is that too many e-mails drive customers away, rather than driving them to the store’s website:

“You get into this mind-set that the more emails you send, the more sales you generate,” said Bud Konheim, chief executive of fashion retailer Nicole Miller Inc. “But that can really start to annoy people.”

For the most part, though, the e-mail flood won’t be dammed anytime soon. Even if the percentage of people opening messages is decreasing, promotional e-mails still succeed in driving traffic to retailer websites. Most retailers won’t stop the Spam-a-thon until it’s demonstrated that they’re hurting sales—that the onslaught of messages is causing a sharp rise in people unsubscribing.

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The individual consumer, of course, can dam the Spam flood. Instead of simply deleting the latest e-mail, take five seconds to click on the unsubscribe option.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.