Like your mother, Bradys men's clothing chain in San Diego never forgets birthdays. It sends birthday cards to its best customers, along with discount coupons worth $15.
Procter & Gamble Co., the maker of Pampers and other infant-care products, combs readily available data to find the homes of new parents. It then mails those parents sample boxes of disposable diapers, hopefully hooking them for two years.
Amre Inc., the large home-improvement company in Irving, Texas, identifies prospects for its services -- owners of houses that are at least 20 years old, for instance -- and sends them a brochure of their top-selling products.
This is the first wave of a fundamental change in the way products are marketed to American consumers. The change is called micromarketing, and it is redefining the old rules of selling and buying.
Consumers are increasingly coming home to find third-class mail that is startlingly "in-tune" with their likes and dislikes.
The brains behind this ability to approach buyers on a one-to-one basis are computer-driven advances in the collection, storage, interpretation and retrieval of information.
New communications technologies, meanwhile, have enabled marketers to "rifle shot" their message to ever-smaller segments of the population. Armed with highly detailed information about where their potential customers live and work, they can use cable television, zoned newspapers and magazines, and of course, direct mail or telephone calls.
The experts say mass marketing is not necessarily doomed. Advertisers will continue to use network television and other general-circulation media to enhance the "image" of their products.
"In 1980, 11 short years ago, the U.S. could still be classified as a mass market," said Peter Francese, publisher of American Demographics, an influential publication in data-marketing. "Most people still watched network TV. But since then, we've seen an explosion in cable, VCRs, catalog shopping and telemarketing.
"We've seen an incredible fragmentation of the media and of consumer groups. As a result, mass marketing died because it became inefficient," he said.
In the last 20 years, the art has evolved from blind direct mailings sent to broad segments of the population to solicitations sent only to households that share certain lifestyles and buying habits. These so-called consumer profiles, based on data gleaned electronically from government and commercial sources, have enabled marketers to communicate with customers on virtually a one-on-one basis.
Critics complain that much of the available information comes from public records, such as motor vehicle registrations and U.S. Census Bureau data.
But shoppers unwittingly disclose much about themselves when they fill out receipt forms, questionnaires and warranty cards. Auto parts stores keep track of the year and make of your car. Magazines sell their subscription lists and catalogers keep track of your past purchases. Department stores take note of the type and size of the clothes you buy with a charge card.
At the base of this research pyramid are two enormous sources of data: the federal census, which can break data down to the residential block level; and rapidly evolving "scanning" technology. Under the latter method, now commonplace at most stores, checkout clerks electronically scan the bar codes on products as they are sold. Besides transmitting the price of an item to the electronic cash register, scanning creates an electronic record of everything that is sold, and in some cases, who bought it.
Using just those two sources, the census and scanning, direct marketers can put together detailed demographic profiles of subneighborhoods, typically of 300 households but sometimes as small as eight households.
By combining that data with what they can determine about an individual household's buying patterns, marketers can literally "home in" with customized messages.
Unsolicited mail and phone calls -- once the Rodney Dangerfield of marketing -- has produced steady increases in consumer responses over the last decade. Direct marketing scored a 60 percent increase in the number of responses from 1983 to 1989. In 1989 alone, 92 million Americans responded to one form of "junk" or another.