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News Editor

There’s just no figuring out that Internet

Nov 28, 20054 mins
Enterprise Applications

Heaven knows the ‘Net gets blamed for everything this side of teenage acne, but this time the charge appears to carry considerable weight – both figuratively and literally. What makes the revelation particularly interesting is that it is a sterling example of conventional wisdom proving to be more conventional than wise when applied to the Internet. (You’ll have a chance to offer your own examples later.)

It wasn’t long ago that the emergence of e-commerce was seen by most as the beginning of the end for the mail-order catalog. No need to keep killing all those trees once everyone gets in the habit of ordering everything they need and want online. If I didn’t write that myself, I certainly bought into the idea. It was just stone-cold obvious.

Seems most everyone was wrong. Not only has the ‘Net not deep-sixed those catalogs, it has given the once moribund medium new life. The catalogs are driving more traffic online . . . and more traffic online is motivating retailers to mail out more catalogs.

Ask any mail carrier. One TV news report mentioned that the catalog load has so weighed down some letter-luggers that routes are taking as much as an hour longer than usual to complete.

The raw numbers are staggering. According to the Direct Marketing Association, 18.1 billion mail-order catalogs were delivered to U.S. households in 2004, an increase of 1.5 billion over 2002. It may surprise some of you to learn that of that extra 1.5 billion, approximately half were delivered to my house.

Journalists are cautioned not to draw sweeping conclusions from their own narrow experiences, but I’m going to laugh at caution here. This catalog avalanche is indeed moving on down the mountain – and it’s the fault, if you will, of online shoppers.

Mrs. Buzz does an inordinate amount of our household shopping online (as would you if your alternative was chasing 4-year-old triplets through the local mall). In fact, the UPS guy shows up at our door so often I felt obliged to invite him to Thanksgiving dinner – the kids figure he’s just another uncle anyway.

And the catalogs? Don’t you dare call them “junk mail” within earshot of my wife. They are her sports section . . . and who am I to judge? The numbers of catalogs seem not so remarkable as they hit the mailbox three, four, five at a shot. No, where the sheer volume becomes most noticeable is at their designated collection depot, a corner of our bedroom floor. Let’s just say I hope the guy who built our house didn’t skimp on the joists.

E-commerce will kill the catalog industry? Right, nice call.

So what else have we all – notice the blame-sharing here – been dead wrong about when predicting the future impact of emerging technology?

How about cars? First time I heard an expert expound on the “brutally efficient markets” that would spring up around online car shopping, it sounded like a slam-dunk – and very bad news for the profit margins of those who sell cars. That was six or seven years ago – and the majority of us are still kicking tires. (For an academic view of why that is, check out this previous ‘Net Buzz column.

Or consider the end of business travel: It’s been right around the corner for as long as the golden age of videoconferencing has been right around the corner. That’s a long, long time.

The federal government’s Do Not Call list was absolutely, positively going to mean curtains for the telemarketing industry – except that it didn’t.

Now it’s your turn. What is your favorite example of conventional wisdom proving all out of whack?

Send your nominations to or post them online in our forum.