Top 25 things vanishing from America: # 24 -- The Yellow Pages

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This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

The yellow pages used to be a huge business for the phone companies. If you owned a business, you had to be in it. The phone companies knew it, and did their best to squeeze every last penny out of business owners to get them to invest their money in the yellow pages.

The creators and marketers of the yellow pages boast that their publication is still relevant. The Yellow Pages Association suggests that 49% of American adults refer to the yellow pages every week. I'm not convinced that this is true.

And neither is The Kelsey Group, an advertising research firm in New Jersey. They say that in recent years, the use of printed newspapers and yellow pages has been falling at a rate of 2% to 3% per year. But in 2008, the drop in usage may be closer to 10%.

Businesses are sure to react to that drop in usage by holding back advertising dollars, which might even accelerate the decline of the yellow pages more. Fewer advertisers means the publication is less useful, which means there are fewer readers, which results in even fewer advertisers, ending up in a death spiral.

I don't even keep a phone book at my home or office. There's no need to, thanks to the internet. Yellow pages producers figured that out at some point, and started making yellow pages directories available on the web. They're really not needed though, as you can easily find a business with a simple search engine.

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So where is the future of the yellow pages industry going? I'd say down, and down very quickly. There are still plenty of advertisers who obviously believe in the phone books, and I'm not discounting their experiences with them. I'm just saying that the yellow pages is likely to become more and more irrelevant each year.

With every passing year, more households have internet access, and web-savvy youngsters are growing into adults with the skills to get whatever information they need with a computer. Other than baby boomers and older, I know very few people who use any type of phone book anymore, white pages or yellow pages. Who needs two bulky books sitting on a shelf?

But every year, the phone book delivery people come through the neighborhood to deliver their wares. I've even caught them in the act and asked them to take the books back. After all, I'm just going to put them in the dumpster as soon as they leave. Their response? "Sorry ma'am. We're required to deliver them to every single house. No exceptions. Not even if you don't want one."

So with that, I do my part each year to needlessly kill a part of a tree as I walk from the front porch to the dumpster and deposit the phone books. The yellow pages people need to find a better way to adapt to technology, or they will find themselves out of business within a decade. That's my prediction, anyway.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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