Spam placement rates for commercial email senders reached 13.5% in 2017.

Email marketing may be mature, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s a reliable, relatively inexpensive marketing workhorse that’s been heavily used by retailers for more than a decade. A whopping 81.6% of retailers use email marketing, and 36.5% plan to spend more on email this year, according to Internet Retailer’s 2017 Digital Marketing Survey of 89 retailers.

However, a new study from email marketing vendor Return Path, The Hidden Metrics of Email Deliverability, finds that overall spam placement rates for commercial email senders rose for the second consecutive year, reaching 13.5% in 2017. That’s up from 12.5% in 2016 and 12% in 2015. The spam placement rate is calculated as the number of emails delivered to the spam folder out of total emails sent.

When looking at the industries e-retailers operate in, the spam rates for 2017 and year-over-year percentage changes were:

  • Apparel and accessories: 13.4%, up 0.9%
  • Computers and electronics: 11.6%, up 1.2%
  • Deals and rewards: 14.1%, up 1.5%
  • Flowers and gifts: 17.3%, up 2.3%
  • Food and drug: 14.8%, up 3.3%
  • General merchandise: 9.7%, up 2.2%
  • Health and beauty: 16.5%, up 1.8%
  • Household and home improvement: 11.8%, up 1.5%
  • Office supplies: 17.3%, up 4.4%,
  • Pets: 10.9%, up 4.4%
  • Sporting goods: 18.6%, up 2.3%
  • Toys, hobbies and crafts: 11.9%, up 1.1%

The study examined more than 17,000 commercial senders, 2 million consumer panelists and 5.5 billion commercial email messages received between January 1 and December 31, 2017. Consumer data was captured from monitored email accounts controlled by subscribers to sample user-initiated and engagement-based filtering decisions by mailbox providers.


How can retailers get their messages out of the junk folder? Get subscribers to engage with the messages by opening and clicking, Return Path says.

“In recent years, subscriber engagement signals have become a critical factor in filtering out unwanted email—especially at major mailbox providers like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo,” says Tom Sather, senior director of research at Return Path. “These providers are constantly looking to improve their customer experience and refine their ability to deliver only wanted messages to the inbox.”

Women’s plus-size apparel merchant Ashley Stewart tested the frequency of emails it sent and was able to boost the percentage of messages that landed in customers’ inboxes by segmenting messages by user engagement. “We used to send emails three times a day to our entire file whether they engaged with us or not,” says Julie Daly, vice president of digital commerce for the retailer, No 303 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000. When it changed the frequency, only sending multiple messages a day to shoppers who were consistently opening them, and sending less frequent messages to other shoppers, the retailer’s inbox placement percentage rose from 85% to between 95% and 99%.

“While engagement data can provide unique insights to help marketers improve deliverability and enhance customer relationships, many marketers aren’t currently tracking these metrics—and, in fact, may not even be aware that they’re available,” Sather says.


Industries with the lowest spam placement rate were banking and finance, distribution and manufacturing and insurance, Return Path says.

Return Path also looked at the read rate, which is calculated as the number of emails that are marked as “read” out of all emails sent. Read rate is similar to open rate, but it is more accurate because it accounts for all emails viewed, regardless of image rendering, Return Path says.




For 2017 the read rates and year-over-year percentage changes by industry were:

  • Apparel and accessories: 20.9%, down 1%
  • Computers and electronics: 25.5%, down 1.3%
  • Deals and rewards: 17.3%, down 0.6%
  • Flowers and gifts: 20.8%, down 0.8%
  • Food and drug: 20.0%, down 0.7%
  • General merchandise: 24.5%, down 1.5%
  • Health and beauty: 20.4%, same as a year earlier
  • Household and home improvement: 23.4%, down 2%
  • Office supplies: 21.3%, down 3%,
  • Pets: 21.5%, down 0.9%
  • Sporting goods: 21.8%, down 1.3%
  • Toys, hobbies and crafts: 19.4%, down 0.5%

Across all industries, subscribers read email at a slightly lower rate than last year—21.5% in 2017 compared with 22.2% in 2016. But email that is ignored or “deleted before reading” also was slightly less common than a year ago at 11.9% in 2017, compared with 12.5% in 2016. The deleted-before-reading rate measures how often a recipient deletes email without reading it, calculated as the total number of unread emails deleted out of total emails sent.

For 2017 the deleted before reading rates and year-over-year percentage changes by industry were:

  • Apparel and accessories: 12.6%, down 0.9%
  • Computers and electronics: 12.1%, down 1.1%
  • Deals and rewards: 12.0%, down 1.1%
  • Flowers and gifts: 14.1%, down 1.6%
  • Food and drug: 12.9%, down 1.1%
  • General merchandise: 12.3%, down 1.0%
  • Health and beauty: 12.0%, down 1.0%
  • Household and home improvement: 14.8%, down 1.1%
  • Office supplies: 14.2%, down 1.4%,
  • Pets: 14.2%, down 2.1%
  • Sporting goods: 13.3%, down 0.8%
  • Toys, hobbies and crafts: 12.6%, down 0.4%

Return Path also looked at the forward rate, which is calculated as the number of emails that are forwarded on to others out of total emails sent. Very few consumers forwarded marketing emails. Those rates ranged from 0.01% to 0.03%.


Return Path also examined the complaint rate or the rate at which subscribers report messages as spam. This rate ranged from 0.76% at the high end for office supplies to 0.08% for general merchandise at the low end.

The study additionally examined the “this is not spam” rate, which is calculated as the number of times a subscriber marks a company’s message “this is not spam” or “not junk” out of the number of emails delivered to the spam folder.

For 2017, the “this is not spam” rates and year over year percentage changes by industry were:

  • Apparel and accessories companies: 1.91%, up 0.74%
  • Deals and rewards: 1.47%, up 0.35%
  • Flowers and gifts: 2.61%, up 1.8%
  • Food and drug: 1.4%, up 0.62%
  • General merchandise: 3.2%, up 2.28%
  • Health and beauty: 2.52%, up 0.8%
  • Household and home improvement: 1.53%, up 0.56%
  • Office supplies: 2.26%, up 0.86%,
  • Pets: 1.94%, up 0.63%
  • Sporting goods: 2.52%, up 0.63%
  • Toys hobbies and crafts: 1.76%, up 0.70%

Consumers were more likely than ever before to mark email as not spam. The overall average for 2017 was 1.77% in 2017 versus 1.04% in 2016.


37.9% of merchants (the largest percentage) in Internet Retailer’s 2017 Digital Marketing Survey said email offers them the best return on their digital marketing investments. And more than 40% of retailers spend 10% or less of their marketing budget on email marketing.

Additionally, 89% of marketing professionals listed email as one of their top three priorities for 2018, according to a late January study of 300 marketers from digital marketing vendor Yes Lifecycle Marketing. That survey also found that 45% of marketers ranked email as their top priority for 2018.