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The 800-number will soon have a new sibling named 888 in the toll-free industry.

From selling flowers to buying plane tickets to servicing customers to paging sales reps, the 800-number has played an increasingly large role in companies' marketing strategies.

But there are only so many 800-numbers available-7.6 million, to be exact. And due to the explosion in the communications industry, 800-number growth has taken off. Between 1967 and 1993, close to 1.3 million 800-numbers were handed out. By 1995, that number has reached 6.8 million.

The first week of June alone saw the assignment of 113,000 new 800-numbers, which prompted the Federal Communications Commission to impose a cap on 800-number distribution, allowing only 28,000 new numbers to be dispensed per week.

The FCC is planning a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" by the end of this month to address the issue of 800 and 888 when it comes to vanity numbers like American Express Co.'s 1-800-The-Card or 1-800-FLOWERS, which carry significant brand equity for marketers.

"On the one hand, companies have invested a lot of time and energy into their specific 800-numbers," said a spokeswoman at the FCC Common Carrier Bureau. But if every company with a vanity 800-number were to get a duplicate of that number with an 888 prefix to hold onto the number's equity, the reason for adding the 888 prefix-to free up more numbers-would be defeated, she said.

"The equity of our brand is extremely critical to our company," said Pete Spina, VP at 1-800-FLOWERS. "People know us as 1-800-FLOWERS. To all of a sudden have all that in jeopardy with the introduction of 888 is scary. But we will continue to build our brand around the number and voice our opinions to the industry about how important the 1-800-FLOWERS brand is to our company."

A survey conducted by the industry said about 24% of all 800-numbers are vanity numbers. But allegations of hoarding and brokering 800-numbers-especially attractive 800-number combinations-pose serious threats to the industry.

"Obviously, there are some companies out there wanting to make a quick buck that abuse 800-number resources," said John Cushman, national brand manager of toll-free services at AT&T. "We can't police our 800 [number] customers all the time, and it's silly to say that everyone follows the rules all the time."

AT&T and MCI Communications Corp. both plan to launch significant public relations campaigns in September to begin educating consumers and businesses about the March launch of 888.

AT&T will produce video news releases; participate in radio, newspaper and TV interviews; and sponsor "Toll-Free Day" in cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

"Right now, our plan is to focus on educating the public through news sources," said Ken Sichau, AT&T VP-marketing. "But it could very well roll into a large consumer advertising campaign as the 888 launch date nears."

Both long-distance giants understand that 888 education and acceptance need to start with those marketers that rely on 800-numbers for conducting business.

"Education will start with big business customers who have, in essence, built the toll-free marketplace," said Bob Manning, senior manager-800 product marketing at MCI. "They'll have the biggest impact on consumers calling, but we'll also probably see a lot of mass advertising about 888 as we near its arrival."

Most marketers aren't giving 888 the warmest of welcomes.

"The number 800 has itself been branded as toll-free," said Judith Oppenheimer, president of Interactive Call Brand, which is lobbying for using the number 800 for commercial marketing and allocating 888 to personal paging and residential communication systems.

"888 will break the integrity of the 800 brand that has become an integral part of consumer and business marketing. 800-numbers are an advertising medium and should stay that way," she said.

"There's a lot of concern if consumers confuse 800 with 888, then any company that has built equity around a number could be in trouble," said Sid Liebenson, exec VP-director of marketing at DraftDirect Worldwide, Chicago. "Although those who have branded an 800-number are most at risk, even marketers who use 800-numbers on packaging or promotions could be facing problems with the confusion caused by 888."

TeleChoice , a Verona, N.J.-based market researcher, recently surveyed 430 consumers in the New York area about 800 and 888.

More than 85% would choose an 800-number before an 888-number. And even after being educated about 888-numbers, more than 75% of those surveyed still would order an item from an ad with an 800-number rather than an item of similar brand and quality that shows an 888-number.

"Of course if consumers are given the choice between 800 and 888, they will obviously choose 800 because it's familiar to them," said Renee Frengut, president of Market Insights, a Bronxville, N.Y.-based marketing consultancy. "But if companies do a good job educating consumers about the change, they will have no problem adapting to 888; consumers are pretty savvy nowadays."

Laura Loro contributed to this story.

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