Tag Archives: mail-order

Transportation and “catalog” retailing

The last post discussed the role of urban transportation improvements leading to the development of the department store in the late nineteenth century. And of course the role of the automobile in shaping retail developments in the twentieth century is obvious. This got me thinking about the role of transportation (and communication) improvements in the evolution of retailing where the customer orders goods from a remote vendor and those goods are delivered to the customer.

We tend to think of modern developments such as e-commerce as novel developments. However, I’m going to start again in the late nineteenth century. But first, a brief excursion into the pros and cons of this type of purchase from the standpoint of the consumer. The major advantage is the selection of goods available, the ability to purchase things that are not available in local retail establishments, along with the convenience of being able to purchase the merchandise without having to travel to a store. The major cons are the inability to physically view the items to be purchased and the delay associated with the need for delivery, the lack of the instant gratification associated with physical purchase. Both introduce some uncertainties into the transaction. I am not mentioning price. The vendor saves money by not having brick-and-mortar stores, but this will be offset at least to some extent by the costs of shipping. This could go either way.

The mail-order catalog business emerged in the late nineteenth century with the major vendors being Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The retailers made available a variety of merchandise to residents of rural areas that they otherwise would have been unable to acquire. The development of the railroads along with express freight services and parcel post to deliver the merchandise was undoubtedly a prerequisite. On the communications side, regular reliable mail service had been available for some time. But this mail-order business also required the development of printing technology that enabled production of the catalogs at a reasonable cost. (I don’t know just when this threshold may have been crossed, but I seriously doubt that Ben Franklin could have printed large numbers of Sears catalogs economically.) Just as transportation improvements enabled the rise of the general mail-order catalog, widespread use of the automobile made physical stores accessible to rural residents and led to its decline.

Another wave of remote shopping expanded in the second half of the twentieth century with the growth of specialized catalog shopping with telphone ordering, ranging from clothing (Lands End, L.L. Bean, etc.) to gourmet foods (Dean & Deluca). The attraction to the consumer was access to a wider selection and to specialized goods they could not purchase locally. Some improvements to delivery services helped. UPS did far better than the very long delivery times the post office provided, especially in the past. The role of improvements in communication should not be discounted. Toll-free 800 numbers made the calls free. I imagine customers would not have relished the idea of paying the expensive long-distance charges of the past to make purchases. Again, I don’t know at what point the costs of high-quality color printing for catalogs became reasonable, especially since they send out huge numbers. But it does seem that I saw a lot less color printing in the mid-twentieth century. These catalog retailers also innovated to minimize the risks associated with remote purchasing, offering no-questions-asked returns if something didn’t fit or even if you just didn’t like it.

We finally get to today’s e-commerce. It is noteworthy that Amazon started with books, which have two features favoring this model. First, for any given author and title, all books are the same. There is not the guessing that would be involved in choosing among several green sweaters. And second, with books, the breadth of selection is everything. No brick-and-mortar bookstore can possibly approach the inventory of an online retailer. Amazon and the other online retailers also adopted the policies of the catalog retailers (now, of course, also online) with easy returns and high levels of customer service. Zappos has no problem with your ordering multiple pairs of shoes in order to pick the one pair you want and send the others back.

Obviously the World Wide Web was the innovation on the communications side, making both obtaining informtion on available items and ordering quick and easy. And on the transportation side, the expansion of e-commerce is driving improvements in delivery services, with 2-day and even 1-day delivery becoming commonplace without excessive charges. This, of course, reduces the penalty of having to wait for delivery. Indeed, considering the likelihood of a lag between wanting to purchase an item and having the time to go out to a store, online ordering may be quicker.

Given the rapid developments in e-commerce and speedy delivery, we may be seeing only the first stages in the effects on physical retailers and therefore our urban areas.