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Yellow Pages (John Morstad)
Yellow Pages (John Morstad)

Yellow Pages

Public hangs up on printed phone books Add to ...

It was a scene that will be familiar to home owners across Canada: Phone books had been delivered to someone who did not want them.

Only in this case, the recipient of the unwanted directories was the Montreal headquarters of the Yellow Pages Group, the company that delivers 23 million directories across Canada each year.

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"You deliver them to people's houses without permission, why can't we deliver them back to you?" asked 32-year-old Montreal resident Aimee Davison, in a video of the Oct. 22 delivery that has been viewed thousands of times online.

Along with Kyle MacDonald, Ms. Davison is the co-founder of the Yellow Page Mountain initiative, an attempt to cease the unwanted delivery of phone books across Canada.

Mr. MacDonald is widely known for the One Red Paperclip project, during which he traded a simple office supply for a house in Kipling, Sask., via the Internet. He has since turned the experience into a book and gigs on the public speaking circuit, and his website has been visited by more than nine million people.

The pair is hoping their Yellow Page Mountain campaign creates a similar sensation, and it has already earned thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook.

"Anything that goes viral online, it's because people agree with it," Ms. Davison said. "I don't think anyone really uses these anymore. I don't understand why, in the era of Google, they're still delivering them."

But the company says the majority of Canadians disagree with Ms. Davison's position.

Fiona Story, a spokeswoman for Yellow Pages Group , said the company closely tracks the use of their directories each year, and said that third-party research has found that 50 per cent of Canadians use the printed directory on a monthly basis.

The company is not ignorant of the fact that the Internet has changed the way Canadians are seeking out information, she said. In June, they cancelled the delivery of White Pages directories in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa-Gatineau, Montreal and Quebec City. The company had concluded that only a third of Canadians were using the residential directory at least once a year.

They introduced a Yellow Pages opt-out system last year, and have released a number of mobile search applications.

"We really want to make sure we're not delivering print directories to people who do not want them or do not use them," Ms. Story said.

David Goddard, a senior analyst for the U.S. media research company Simba, said anti-Yellow Pages sentiment tends to come from 27- to 33-year-old iPhone aficionados who live in urban centres.

"They say no one uses the Yellow Pages. But that turns out to not be true," he said. "The dropoff in usage in print is actually very small."

Many households still do not have high-speed broadband, he said, or the desire to wade through pages of Google hits to find a local flower shop or plumber.

But phone books are becoming a growing source of contention across North America, as environmentally conscious consumers struggle to justify the annual delivery of paper.

Fifteen U.S. states have banned the delivery of White Pages or are in the process of doing so.

And on Monday, two publishers of U.S. business directories sued the city of Seattle in federal court.

In October, the city passed an ordinance that requires phone book publishers to essentially cover the $300,000 annual cost of recycling unwanted books.

The ordinance requires phone book publishers to pay an annual $100 licensing fee, as well as $0.14 per book and $148 per ton in "advance recovery fees."

Mr. Goddard said the industry had no choice but to fight back, saying they are being singled out to compensate the city for recycling costs, unlike newspaper publishers or the packaged goods industry.

"The Yellow Pages industry has a right to distribute, but on the other hand if you're a community paying $300,000 a year to take care of somebody else's product you have the right to ask for your money back," he said. "I think you'll see some sort of compromise, because neither side is wrong."

In Montreal, Ms. Davison said she is not anti-phone book, she's just anti-waste.

She and Mr. MacDonald collected more than 500 books in just a few hours, she said, thanks to tips sent to the pair via Twitter.

Many of the books were found in the lobbies of apartment buildings, where stacks of directories go uncollected. Ms. Davison said she would like the service to be opt-in rather than opt-out, and points out that Yellow Pages Group currently requires people to renew their opt-out request every two years.

"I just don't want them to continually waste resources," she said. "My point is that the number of people who need it is a heck of a lot less than the distribution rate."

When asked what they did with the returned directories, Yellow Pages confirmed Ms. Davison's suspicions.

"We recycled them," Ms. Story said.



YELLOW PAGES, BY THE NUMBERS

23 million - Yellow Pages directories delivered in Canada this year

115,000 - Approximate number of Canadians who have opted out of delivery

50 - Percentage of Canadians using Yellow Pages on a monthly basis

20 - Percentage of Canadian Yellow Page searches that will happen on mobile devices by the end of the year

1878 - Year the first telephone directory was delivered in Canada

68 - Number of businesses and residences it listed

$350,000 - Annual cost of recycling phone books in the city of Seattle

3 - Percentage of Seattle's household recycling taken up by phone books

$74.7-million - Yellow Pages Inc.'s third-quarter earnings

27 - Percentage of revenue now accounted for by online products

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