Retailers Fight Exile From Gmail In-Boxes

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Even in an age of Twitter posts and Instagram photos, e-mail is still the way marketers reach the hearts -- and wallets -- of consumers. And that is why retailers are up in arms about Google's latest tweak to Gmail.

Over the summer, the Internet behemoth gradually introduced a new in-box with an assortment of folders for different types of messages, including a main in-box and ones for social networking alerts, e-commerce promotions, updates from businesses like banks and mailing-list messages.

For Google, it's another moneymaking avenue (note the ads that look like e-mails that now appear at the top of the promotions folder). Also, the company says it wants to fix e-mail overload.

Yet any tiny change that the Internet giant makes has cascading effects for businesses across the Web.

"I don't like it," said Ada Polla, chief executive of Alchimie Forever, a skin care brand. "My guess would be that you might log on to your Gmail 20 times a day, and look at promotions once a week."

Retailers, who have a love-hate relationship with Google, say this is the latest tussle in an increasingly contentious union. Google, they say, has effectively classified their messages as junk mail by shunting them to an in-box ghetto.

It is too early to tell exactly how Gmail users treat the new tabs, because Google is still rolling out the feature. Although retailers fear that fewer customers are clicking on their sites -- because they didn't read the e-mail promising 40 percent off -- so far, there has been only a small effect. The rate at which consumers open e-commerce e-mails has declined about 1 percent since it was introduced, according to three services that manage mass e-mails -- Yesmail Interactive, MailChimp and 3DCart.

Another change, though, might be more worrisome for e-commerce companies. While shoppers typically click on promotions within hours of receiving an e-mail on other services like Yahoo and Outlook, Gmail users are waiting more than 24 hours, 3DCart said.

That is problematic for flash-sale sites, like Gilt and MyHabit, whose business depends on drawing customers to limited-time sales.

"One of our limitations is we're a flash site that starts our sales at noon, so that's the primary way that we communicate with our members, through e-mail," said Elizabeth Francis, Gilt's chief marketing officer.

Retailers also say the changes don't apply to every business; Google's own marketing messages from Google Analytics and AdWords have been appearing in the primary in-box -- belying the company's argument that the promotions folder is vibrant.

But Alex Gawley, a Gmail product manager, said that there was "no special treatment" for Google's own promotional e-mails, and that the algorithm was still learning how e-mails should be categorized.

"You'll see it get more and more accurate and you'll probably see those types of e-mails moving to the place where people expect them to be," he said.

Companies, including Gap and Groupon, are resisting the changes by begging customers to move their messages back to the primary in-box. Gilt has been putting banners atop daily e-mails that say, "Drag and drop me into your Primary tab!" If people do that, future e-mails from the same sender will appear there. Gmail users can also turn off the sorting by changing their in-box settings.

Gilt does not know whether its campaign is working, Ms. Francis said, because Google does not disclose how customers move their e-mail around.

Retailers have little choice but to use Google, whether buying search ads or sending inventory feeds to Google's comparison shopping service. But they complain that Google has been complicating the relationship. Last year, for instance, it began charging retailers to appear in its product search, leading some, including Amazon, to remove their listings from the service.

The change to Gmail, though, strikes at the heart of retailers' marketing tactics. Eighty percent of marketers are investing more in e-mail this year than last, according to a study by Forrester Research and Shop.org. And with nearly half a billion users, Gmail is a major part of that strategy.

Although Google is also filtering other messages into secondary in-boxes, like sending Twitter and LinkedIn notifications to the social tab, retailers say they have the most to lose.

E-mail marketing is vital to her business, Ms. Polla said; She, too, has urged customers to move Alchimie's e-mails back to the primary in-box.

"I worked so hard to get it, I want to make sure that I'm able to utilize it," she said of her e-mail subscription list.

Google made the change, Mr. Gawley said, because e-mail had become a headache for most people, in part because so many types of mail compete for attention. Who has not missed an important e-mail from a friend because it was lodged between clearance-sale messages?

The problem is even more acute on mobile devices. People checking e-mail on small screens have less patience for scrolling through unwanted messages. Retailers say that on average, 28 percent of e-mails sent to customers are first opened on a smartphone, the Shop.org and Forrester study found. Google has started to address this by segregating e-mail into tabs for people who use a Gmail mobile app.

"Our goal with the new in-box was really to help users stay on top of everything that's coming into their in-box," Mr. Gawley said. "It was difficult to parse this list when messages of very different contexts were all kind of intertwined."

To prevent the secondary in-boxes from becoming unread folders of junk mail, Google has designed the tabs to alert people when new messages appear there, he said. The hope is that the promotions tab encourages people to pay more attention to marketing e-mails, he said, perusing those messages when they are in the mood to shop, rather than discarding messages that interrupt their day.

And, Google hopes, they will also pay more attention to the new ads Google is showing there.

"By creating the promotions tab, we created a context in Gmail where users are in the commercial mind-set," Mr. Gawley said.

Some Gmail users say they like the change, and are paying more attention to marketing e-mails.

Mary Morgan, 23, who works in public relations in Washington, said she used to delete marketing messages when they interfered with her daily tasks, but now set aside time to read them. "I love that Gmail has figured out a way to automatically put everything into different tabs for me," she said.

Pam Bullock, 27, a business consultant in Kettering, Ohio, is getting fed up with pleas from retailers to move their messages into in-boxes -- Ann Taylor, Newegg and Rent the Runway are among those who have issued such requests to her.

"It's palpable, and it gives me anxiety," she said. Still, she said she had been looking at promotions less frequently, and "that's where I feel like they are a little validated."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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