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 from last fall to this summer, 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.
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"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 flyers remain among the cheapest and most effective ways to market and sell products and draw new shoppers into stores.