The Death of the Yellow Pages

unclaimed yellow pages
A dark age for yellow pages
Flickr-User: Larsz.

The Print Yellow Pages is a $15 billion industry, so why are there dozens of Yellow Pages in my lobby still wrapped in plastic waiting to be picked by the tenants of the building?

In 1994 my company was in the business of designing interactive telephone systems for large corporate customers like American Express and United Airlines. If you saw an ad in Parade Magazine for Holiday Inn and wanted more information on their property in, say, Buena Vista, Florida you would call a toll free number and press digits in response to different prompts. It was like the Internet, but over the phone. 1994 was also the year that Netscape came out; and in less than two years we lost all our customers to the new way of getting information to consumers.

We had all these phone lines and servers and racks of equipment and needed to find a new use for them. So we went into the prepaid phonecard business which was just starting in America back then. Skip ten years... now my company is one of the largest prepaid card companies in North America. The Internet killed our original business but opened the door to another.

Years ago, whenever the Yellow Pages were delivered to our building they would disappear the first day. In fact we would call and order Yellow Pages for the surrounding areas as well, Brooklyn, Queens, Northern New Jersey and so on. Today, months after they were dropped off in the lobbies of almost every building in New York, you will see this sight of unclaimed, unwanted, unopened Yellow Pages.

Peruvian Yellow Page Girls
Peruvian Yellow Page Girls
Flickr-User: escapekiken.
I wonder how long it will take the Yellow Pages to realize they are in a dying business? Yes, yes, I know that they've duplicated their YP business on the Internet, but unless I'm looking for a specific company's address or phone number, won't I be better off using Google or Yahoo? If I already know what I want to buy isn't it easier to click on fatwallet where I get coupons, cash back, and listings for hot deals?

If I search for "40 inch lcd" in Google, not one Yellow Pages entry shows up in the top hundred entries; they're not even in the sponsored links. The big claim to fame for the Yellow Pages has always been sales. If you listed your business you always got sales. Now they're letting those sales go to Amazon, Newegg, Nextag and others. So why would anyone who has Internet access want a printed copy of old technology?

Of course, I may be persuaded to take a copy if they were delivered by the Peruvian Yellow Pages Girls.

Given that the Print Yellow Pages will eventually die, the Internet YP will need to start giving a better user experience before they too slowly wither away. At the present time Internet YP users are more likely to visit financial, B2B, media, and manufacturer sites, while local search engines skew toward community, gaming, entertainment, and politics. So IYP still has some life to it, but just as Amazon doesn't just sell books, eventually IYP will see others nipping at their current business strongholds.

There are some local businesses that have not gone digital and for whom the Print Yellow Pages still deliver sales results as fewer and fewer competitors advertise there, but if more and more of these books keep piling up in lobbies how long can that last?

Ah, but one time it was the best game in town. Let me tell you a story. Back in 1971 my brother and I were in the vending machine business, our company was called Intervend. We had over 500 machines in five counties in New Jersey with five trucks all hooked up by radio communications. Boy we could have used cellphones then. We sold everything: sandwiches, soda, cigarettes (45 cents a pack, and when we went to 50 cents everyone swore they would quit), candy, ice cream, coffee, ice cubes, popcorn, you name it. We even had jukeboxes and pool tables. We were in bars, hospitals, factories, diners, and gas stations.

One day the phone rings and the caller said he wanted to order a few cartons of Marlboros, some Kents, Winstons, 5 boxes of Hershey's Almonds, and so on. I told him we only sold individual products through vending machines and that he must have the wrong number. Twenty minutes later another caller, another order for products. An hour after that another call.

I quickly went to the Yellow Pages under Wholesale Candy and Tobacco and found our phone number listed accidentally under the largest wholesaler in Bayonne. The Yellow Pages goofed! I told my brother we just won the jackpot. Here was a full page listing in the Yellow Pages with our phone number and which by some miracle covered exactly the same products we were already selling but only on the wholesale level. The next day I went to the Hudson County Courthouse and registered Bayco Distributors, Wholesale Candy and Tobacco. I had receipt books printed up and within three days we were in another business.

Although the cigarettes and soda cans were exactly the same kind as we used in the vending business, candy was another story. The manufacturers made vending machine candy bars a different size to fit our vending slots and also because we had to price everything without pennies. We answered the phone "Bayco Distributors" and took orders. If someone asked, "Is this X Wholesale Products?" we would say no and give them the correct number to call. It seems that even their long time customers would forget their number and simply look it up in the Yellow Pages. We wound up doing about a quarter of a million dollars annually of wholesale business for a number of years until we got into another business.

I must say, I am not the same person as when I was younger and were I to receive the same calls today I would not unfairly take advantage as I did then. Some people change.

Yellow Pages Related/Trivia:

Quartz Mountain, The Yellow Pages aren't dead yet

There are, of course, still a great many people who use the internet only occasionally or not at all. Robert Scoble thinks this will only be an issue for another 20 years, and he may be right, but I know an awful lot of people in their 20's and 30's who rarely even check their email, much less use the internet to find local businesses. Many of these folks will eventually come online, but I suspect it will take more than 20 years for the number of infrequent internet users to shrink so small that they can be disregarded completely.

In Israel, it's called the Golden Pages and if you search for "PEACE" you will only get back "PEACE" is not in their database. Sad.

God's Yellow Pages, Let your fingers do the walking thru the Bible

Attorneys spend more on the Yellow Pages than any other group, yet more of their income is earned from other sources, such as referrals.

### End of my article ###

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