A new report finds that even though email open rates may have slightly increased in 2018, shoppers are deleting many emails before they open them.

Shoppers are not letting their inboxes get cluttered and are actively opening—and deleting—retailer emails.

Return Path Inc.’s recently released study, “The Hidden Metrics of Email Deliverability,” analyzed 2 million consumer panelists’ emails from 17,000 commercial senders, totaling 6.9 billion commercial email messages throughout all of 2018.

The study found that while shoppers were active at opening emails, they also were active in reporting email as junk or spam and deleting emails before they were read. Read rates and delete-before-reading rates often don’t equal 100% because consumers ignore a large share of retailers’ emails, says Patty Atwater, content marketing manager at Return Path.

“Having both high read and delete-before-reading rates indicates an active but discerning audience,” Atwater says. “This indicates your customers are expecting a more personalized experience.”


The study found that in 2018 shoppers reported more emails as junk/spam almost double the amount as 2017, at a 0.39% rate in 2018 compared with 0.17% in 2017. Office supply merchants were among the worst offenders with consumers marking 0.73% of that category’s emails as spam/junk in 2018.

The delete-before-reading rate also increased in 2018, up to 16% in 2018 from 12% in 2017.

A high delete rate shows subscribers are not interested in the messages the retailer sends, according to Return Path. However, at least the retailer hasn’t pushed subscribers over the edge to unsubscribe yet, Atwater says.

Retail categories that had the highest delete-before-reading rate include:

  • Apparel and accessories – 17% in 2018, up from 13% in 2017
  • Flowers and gifts – 19% in 2018, up from 14% in 2017
  • Food and drug – 16% in 2018, up from 12% in 2017
  • Household and home improvement – 19% in 2018, up from 15% in 2018
  • Pets – 20% in 2018, up from 14% in 2017
  • Sporting goods – 19% in 2018, up from 13%
  • Toys/hobbies and crafts – 17% in 2018, up from 13% in 2017

“A couple of factors for [a high delete-before-reading rate] could be retailers are sending emails at too high a frequency, subject lines aren’t resonating with subscribers or a retailer’s subscribers are not in the buying cycle, and, therefore, are just deleting emails to clean out their inbox,” Atwater says.

The study also found that the read rate increased in 2018 over 2017 by two percentage points, to 24% in 2018 compared with 22% in 2017. Read rate, similar to open rate, is the percent of emails consumers open out of all the emails the marketer sent and counts emails that are opened even if the images in the email don’t render.

There are several possible reasons that read rates could have increased. For example, a marketer is building more personalized content and using technology to better segment their lists, Atwater says. Another reason could be the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that took effect in May 2018, she says. The data protection law required businesses to explicitly tell consumers how they are collecting, using and storing consumers’ personal data, including data already collected, such as an email address from an opt-in marketing program.

“One possibility is the new data protection laws like GDPR, which have required marketers to re-permission their email lists and remove those that don’t opt-in. This results in a smaller, but more engaged list,” she says.


Data from email performance data provider eDataSource finds a similar upward trend for 2018 read rates. EDataSource’s data is based on 1,600-2,500 retail brands (depending on the year and quarter) with about 100,000 or more consumers on each retailers’ email list.

Read rates were roughly 16% in 2018 compared with 15% in 2017. The average read rate in the first quarter was 18% compared with 16% a year earlier, according to eDataSource.

While read rates only slightly increased, consumers cite emails as one of the top two influencing marketing tactics to research or buy a product, according to an Internet Retailer Bizrate Insights survey of 1,105 online shoppers in March 2019.

The consumer survey also found that 55% of online shoppers received more retail emails within the past three months compared with last year, 37% of consumers said they received about the same amount and only 8% said they received fewer.


In addition, 50% of consumers opened about the same number of emails this year compared with last year, 31% said they opened fewer and 19% said they opened more, according to the Bizrate survey.

The Return Path study also found:

  • Of all the emails these commercial senders sent in 2018, 9% of those emails went directly into shoppers’ spam folders. While this may seem high, this is down five percentage points from 2017 when 14% of commercial emails were put into spam, according to the study.
  • 0.02% of consumers marked a commercial email that landed in a junk or spam folder as “not junk” or “not spam” in 2018, down from 1.77% in 2017.
  • Forward rates, or when a consumer forwards an email on to someone, stayed the same year over year at 0.02%.