A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Irrelevance
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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Irrelevance

Photo by Val Dodge/Torontoist.

When was the last time you opened the Yellow Pages? In a world of Google and Canada411, it’s probably been a while since you’ve consulted any kind of phone book. When was the last time you saw someone take a phone book off that giant shrinkwrapped pile that eternally guards so many apartment building lobbies and grocery store entrances? It’s probably been even longer.
With Internet access approaching ubiquity and easy access to any number of online directories and search engines quickly following, phone books seem to be a quaint relic of the past: treasured by some but unused by most. After all, you can find virtually everything in the phone book online without squinting to read tiny text, getting ink all over your hands, or storing a giant book near your desk for the rare occasion that you may need to use it. And not only that, but you get access to phone books from around the world without needing a trip to the reference library. By all accounts, the phone book should be well on its way to dying, if not long dead and buried already. So why do Toronto households receive as many as four different business directories now, each bigger than the last? In this world of business efficiency and environmental concerns, do we really need five kg of dead trees—not even counting the biennial residential phone book— distributed to every home and business in the city?
The Yellow Pages Group publishes the smallest (and arguably the most practical) book of the bunch, a svelte paperback-sized neighbourhood directory that includes complete business listings for all of your local merchants. It can be useful for finding a local plumber, getting the name of that repair shop a couple of blocks over, or looking up the phone number of your local cobbler. Internet directories are still rather hit-and-miss with that kind of fuzzy hyper-local information.
The others—Torstar’s Goldbook, Canpages, and the city-wide Yellow Pages—are likely to sit unused in a forgotten corner of the house for a year if they’re not thrown into the blue bin the same day they arrive. In apartment and office buildings, stacks of unclaimed phone books sit in the lobby, awaiting someone with a strong back to haul them around to the dumpster.
Why do we receive more and more directories even as we use them less and less? Gathering ads into big books and lobbing them onto people’s verandas is an incredibly lucrative business: the Yellow Pages Income Fund recently reported its 2008 earnings of more than $500 million on $1.7 billion of revenue, a healthy profit margin of thirty percent. Most of the profit comes from the directory business (which includes income from the Yellow Pages’ online properties and role as Google AdWords purveyor). Now just imagine how much more money they’d make if they didn’t have to distribute all of those useless books. Of course, there’s a downside to everything: without the Yellow Pages, how would the Serial Diners decide where to go next?