COLUMBIA HOUSE LOOKS DOWN THE ROAD FOR GAINS FROM PLAY

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Columbia House saw its share of the music market slipping in recent years and last year changed the very heart of its marketing strategy, jettisoning for the most part the negative option selling strategy in favor of its new club strategy, called Play.

Although Sharon Kuroki, exec VP-music marketing at Columbia House, said there has been a sales shortfall in 1998, she deemed the new strategy successful.

"In terms of dollar value, our club has actually gone down between 1998 and 1997," she said.

But Columbia House is willing to forgo immediate sales in order to invest in the lifetime value of customers.

"What happens with these members is that they don't buy as much initially, but they stay in the club longer," Ms. Kuroki said. "They eventually buy as much."

Play enables a customer to initially order 12 CDs free and buy four additional CDs over the next two years. But instead of negative option selling-in which a customer must tell the company not to send product or else it automatically ships every six weeks-the customer orders a total of four more CDs at club prices over two years' time.

"You decide when you're ready to order. There's no more stress," touts the cover letter describing "The New Deal" to prospective and returning members.

Columbia's control package, the direct mail piece against which all subsequent test pieces are measured, was a mailing in a yellow envelope announcing Play. That piece recently was replaced by a new control, a b&w envelope with blue accents and a similar message: "We've finally changed our ways. No more annoying cards to return."

Cooper Direct, New York, handled the original control package. The new control

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