Oh, um, hi. We were hoping to get your machine

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When you answer the phone, a sing-songy, girl-next-door voice chirps, "Hi, it's Katie from Macy's and, um, I wanted to make sure you were the first to know that our new Inc. Spring fashion line has just arrived!"

Katie and compatriots Jenny and Jessica are scripted and tested right down to the "ums" and "ohs" to tout grand openings, sales and new merchandise for retailers. And surprisingly, given the fact that 45% of Americans are on the national do-not-call list, these faux friends are gaining in popularity as sales tools with retailers such as JCPenney to Kohl's, Staples, Office Depot and Albertson's.

Such "voice marketing" exists due to the do-not-call loophole that allows contact with "existing business customers" such as credit card holders. And industry leader SmartReply claims its' results beat direct mail, since calls cost an average of just 9ยข.

"The ROI is incredible, it's definitely a good return for us," said Dianne Binford, VP-multichannel marketing for Jones Apparel Group, which encompasses brands including Nine West, Bandolino, Jones New York, Kasper and Anne Klein. The company began testing voice marketing two years ago for its 130-store Easy Spirit brand and has since run four campaigns, said Ms. Binford. "On average, we've only had about three customers complain each time. And when they called in and we explained the calls, they ended up appreciating it."

Calling customers is an old marketing tool for retailers. Easy Spirit always created lists of the top 100 customers at each store, relying on managers and store employees to make calls, but measurement was difficult and execution inconsistent.

Although the cost of Easy Spirit voice campaigns were a "drop in the bucket" in terms of the brand's overall budget, Ms. Binford said, they reach a receptive audience. A heads up about an Easy Spirit sale is, after all, coveted knowledge among loyal customers since the brand remains disciplined about sales, running only two a year.


The 570-store Limited Too has conducted six full-scale campaigns, reaching an average of a million customers each time, with an opt-out rate of less than 2%, according to Carol Sweeney, director-database marketing, who added that voice marketing is now a "significant" part of her budget. "I'm a person who gets annoyed with a call I don't want, but customers really appreciate this," she said. "We are just very careful we are not calling every week."

Unlike other forms of mass advertising, voice marketing gives retailers like Easy Spirit the ability to tailor messages based on purchase data. In planning a campaign, Ms. Binford said she starts with six scripts based on buying patterns, such as athletic, dress or sandal purchases.

Irvine, Calif.-based SmartReply claims to have honed and tweaked voice marketing down to a science since launching in 2001. Eric Holmen, VP-professional services, claims SmartReply has discovered some absolutes about consumer responses to voicemail.

For starters, you don't want to reach a live person or "live ear." The best time to call? The afternoon on weekdays. SmartReply also claims only two per 1,000 people will opt-out of the calls. Testing has proved the average patience level is only about 19 seconds for a live call vs. 35 seconds for a voicemail message.

But even 19 seconds is too much for privacy advocate Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert. "It's really annoying and just shows how advertisers have no respect for our time," he said, adding, "It's pretty clear from the way that Congress treated the telemarketing debacle that this is so unpopular it won't take much for new conduct to be banned."

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