Mail order

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Cover of a mail-order catalogue for scientific equipment. Central Scientific Co catalog cover.png
Cover of a mail-order catalogue for scientific equipment.

Mail order is the buying of goods or services by mail delivery. The buyer places an order for the desired products with the merchant through some remote method such as:

Service (economics) intangible offering inseparable from its creators labor, which brings utility value to their client

In economics, a service is a transaction in which no physical goods are transferred from the seller to the buyer. The benefits of such a service are held to be demonstrated by the buyer's willingness to make the exchange. Public services are those that society as a whole pays for. Using resources, skill, ingenuity, and experience, service providers benefit service consumers. Service is intangible in nature.

Mail System for transporting documents and other small packages

The mail or post is a system for physically transporting postcards, letters, and parcels. A postal service can be private or public, though many governments place restrictions on private systems. Since the mid-19th century, national postal systems have generally been established as a government monopoly, with a fee on the article prepaid. Proof of payment is usually in the form of an adhesive postage stamp, but a postage meter is also used for bulk mailing. Modern private postal systems are distinguished from national postal agencies by the terms "courier" or "delivery service".

Delivery (commerce) process of transporting goods from a source location to a predefined destination

Delivery is the process of transporting goods from a source location to a predefined destination. There are different delivery types. Cargo are primarily delivered via roads and railroads on land, shipping lanes on the sea and airline networks in the air. Certain specialized goods may be delivered via other networks, such as pipelines for liquid goods, power grids for electrical power and computer networks such as the Internet or broadcast networks for electronic information.


Online shopping is a form of electronic commerce which allows consumers to directly buy goods or services from a seller over the Internet using a web browser. Consumers find a product of interest by visiting the website of the retailer directly or by searching among alternative vendors using a shopping search engine, which displays the same product's availability and pricing at different e-retailers. As of 2016, customers can shop online using a range of different computers and devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablet computers and smartphones.

E-commerce is the activity of buying or selling of products on online services or over the Internet. Electronic commerce draws on technologies such as mobile commerce, electronic funds transfer, supply chain management, Internet marketing, online transaction processing, electronic data interchange (EDI), inventory management systems, and automated data collection systems.

Then, the products are delivered to the customer. The products are usually delivered directly to an address supplied by the customer, such as a home address, but occasionally the orders are delivered to a nearby retail location for the customer to pick up. Some merchants also allow the goods to be shipped directly to a third party consumer, which is an effective way to send a gift to an out-of-town recipient.

Retail Sale of goods and services from individuals or businesses to the end-user

Retail is the process of selling consumer goods or services to customers through multiple channels of distribution to earn a profit. Retailers satisfy demand identified through a supply chain. The term "retailer" is typically applied where a service provider fills the small orders of a large number of individuals, who are end-users, rather than large orders of a small number of wholesale, corporate or government clientele. Shopping generally refers to the act of buying products. Sometimes this is done to obtain final goods, including necessities such as food and clothing; sometimes it takes place as a recreational activity. Recreational shopping often involves window shopping and browsing: it does not always result in a purchase.

A mail order catalogue is a publication containing a list of general merchandise from a company. Companies who publish and operate mail order catalogues are referred to as cataloguers within the industry. Cataloguers buy or manufacture goods then market those goods to prospects (prospective customers). Cataloguers may "rent" names from list brokers or cooperative databases. The catalogue itself is published in a similar fashion as any magazine publication and distributed through a variety of means, usually via a postal service and the internet.

A list broker acts as an agent for those who wish to conduct direct marketing campaigns via direct mail, email, or telemarketing.

A cooperative database is a type of database that holds information on customers and their transactions. Many companies will contribute information to a database in return for aggregate information on the customers other companies have provided. Such databases are used for promotional mailings, credit card fraud detection and fighting E-mail spam.

Sometimes supermarket products do mail order promotions, whereby people can send in the UPC plus shipping and handling to get a product made especially for the company.

The Universal Product Code (UPC) is a barcode symbology that is widely used in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries for tracking trade items in stores.


Early catalogues

In 1498, the publisher Aldus Manutius of Venice printed a catalogue of the books he was printing. In 1667, the English gardener William Lucas published a seed catalogue, which he mailed to his customers to inform them of his prices. Catalogues spread to colonial America, where Benjamin Franklin is believed to have been the first cataloguer in British America. In 1744 he produced a catalogue of sold scientific and academic books. [1]

Aldus Manutius Italian printer and humanist

Aldus Pius Manutius was a humanist, scholar, educator, and the founder of the Aldine Press. Manutius devoted the later part of his life to publishing and disseminating rare texts. His interest in and preservation of Greek manuscripts mark him as an innovative publisher of his age dedicated to the editions he produced. His enchiridia, small portable books, revolutionized personal reading and are the predecessor of the modern paperback.

Garden planned space set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants

A garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, or enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. The most common form today is a residential garden, but the term garden has traditionally been a more general one. Zoos, which display wild animals in simulated natural habitats, were formerly called zoological gardens. Western gardens are almost universally based on plants, with garden often signifying a shortened form of botanical garden. Some traditional types of eastern gardens, such as Zen gardens, use plants sparsely or not at all.

Benjamin Franklin American polymath and a Founding Father of the United States

Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He founded many civic organizations, including the Library Company, Philadelphia's first fire department and the University of Pennsylvania.

First mail order

Page from the mail order catalogue of D Hay and Son, Nurserymen, 1899) D Hay and Son, Nurserymen -Roses. New roses. Crimson rambler in pot. (Catalogue page 77. 1899). (21015499693).jpg
Page from the mail order catalogue of D Hay and Son, Nurserymen, 1899)

The Welsh entrepreneur Pryce Pryce-Jones set up the first modern mail order in 1861. [2] [3] Starting off as an apprentice to a local draper in Newtown, Wales, he took over the business in 1856 and renamed it the Royal Welsh Warehouse, selling local Welsh flannel.

The establishment of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, and the extension of the railway network, helped Pryce-Jones to eventually turn his small rural concern into a company with global renown. In 1861, Pryce-Jones hit upon a unique method of selling his wares. He distributed catalogues of his wares across the country, allowing people to choose the items they wished and order them via post; he would then dispatch the goods to the customer via the railways. It was an ideal way of meeting the needs of customers in isolated rural locations who were either too busy or unable to get into Newtown to shop directly. This was the world's first mail order business, an idea which would change the nature of retail in the coming century. [4]

The further expansion of the railways in the years that followed allowed Pryce Jones to greatly expand his customer base and his business grew rapidly. He supplied his products to an impressive variety of famous clientele, including Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, the Princess of Wales and royal households across Europe. He also began exporting drapery to the US and British colonies. [5]

One of his most popular products was the Euklisia Rug, [6] the forerunner of the modern sleeping bag, which Pryce-Jones exported around the world, at one point landing a contract with the Russian Army for 60,000 rugs. [7] By 1880, he had more than 100,000 customers and his success was rewarded in 1887 with a knighthood. [8]

In North America

The cover of the first Eaton's catalog, published in 1884. The Eaton's catalog would continue to be published until 1976. Eatons1884catalogue.jpg
The cover of the first Eaton's catalog, published in 1884. The Eaton's catalog would continue to be published until 1976.

In 1845, Tiffany's Blue Book was the first mail-order catalogue in the United States. [9] [10]

In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago produced a mail-order catalogue for his Montgomery Ward mail order business. [11] By buying goods and then reselling them directly to customers, Aaron Montgomery Ward was consequently removing the middlemen at the general store and to the benefit of the customer, lowering the prices drastically. [12]

His first catalogue was a single sheet of paper with a price list, 8 by 12 inches, showing the merchandise for sale and ordering instructions. Montgomery Ward identified a market of merchant-wary farmers in the Midwest. Within two decades, his single-page list of products grew into a 540-page illustrated book selling over 20,000 items.

From about 1921 to 1931, Ward sold prefabricated kit houses, called Wardway Homes, by mail order. [13]

Hammacher Schlemmer is the earliest still surviving mail-order business, established by Alfred Hammacher in New York City in 1848. Offering mechanic's tools and builder's hardware, its first catalogue was published in 1881. [14]

T. Eaton Co. Limited was founded in 1869 in Toronto by Timothy Eaton, an Irish immigrant. The first Eaton's catalogue was a 34-page booklet issued in 1884. As Eaton's grew, so did the catalogue. By 1920, Eaton's operated mail order warehouses in Winnipeg, Toronto and Moncton to serve its catalogue customers. Catalogue order offices were also established throughout the country, with the first opening in Oakville in 1916.


Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog, 1918 Sears - Aids That Every Woman Appreciates.jpg
Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog, 1918

Richard Warren Sears started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs in Redwood Falls, Minnesota in 1888. By 1894, the Sears catalog had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles (produced from 1905–1915 by Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago, not related to the current Ford Motor Company brand of the same name) [15] and a host of other new items.

Organizing the company so it could handle orders on an economical and efficient basis, Chicago clothing manufacturer Julius Rosenwald became a part-owner in 1895. By the following year, dolls, refrigerators, stoves and groceries had been added to the catalog. Sears, Roebuck and Co. soon developed a reputation for high quality products and customer satisfaction. By 1895, the company was producing a 532-page catalog with the largest variety of items that anybody at the time could have imagined. "In 1893, the sales topped 400,000 dollars. Two years later they exceeded 750,000 dollars."

In 1906 Sears opened its catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower. [16] And by that time, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as "the Consumers' Bible". In 1933, Sears, Roebuck and Co. produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the "Sears Wishbook", a catalog featuring toys and gifts and separate from the annual Christmas Catalog.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears also sold kit houses by mail order, selling 70,000 to 75,000 such homes, many of which are still lived in today. [17]

Creation of an industry

The Outlook, American magazine advertisement from 1916 offering mail delivery of fish and seafood. Frank E. Davis Fish Company advertisement, 1916.jpg
The Outlook, American magazine advertisement from 1916 offering mail delivery of fish and seafood.

By creating a direct marketing industry through the mail order catalogue, Pryce Pryce-Jones and Aaron Montgomery Ward enabled the creation of a powerful global network that came to include everything from mail order, to telemarketing and social media. [12] Mail order changed the worldwide marketplace by introducing the concept of privacy and individuality into the retail industry. [18] Today, the mail order catalogue industry is worth approximately 100 billion dollars [18] and generates over 2 trillion in incremental sales. [12]


Sir John Moores was a British businessman and philanthropist most famous for the founding of the Littlewoods retail company that was located in Liverpool, England. Moores became a millionaire through the creation of the Littlewood Pool, one of the best-known names in sports gambling in England.

In January 1932, Moores was able to disengage himself sufficiently from the pools to start up Littlewoods Mail Order Store. This was followed on July 6, 1937 by the opening of the first Littlewoods department store in Blackpool. By the time World War II started there were 25 Littlewoods stores across the UK and over 50 by 1952.

The first Littlewoods catalogue was published in May 1932 with 168 pages. The motto of the catalogue was, "We hoist our Flag in the Port of Supply, and right away we sail to the Ports of Demand—the Homes of the People. We intend to help the homely folk of this country help them to obtain some of the profits made by manufacturing and trading... to save money on things they must have. This Catalogue is our Ship... staffed by an All-British crew... You won't find sleepy, old-fashioned goods carried in the LITTLEWOODS ship. Only the newest of the new goods—honest, British-made merchandise." [19]

With the success of the catalogue business, Moores moved his business four times to larger buildings in 1932. Moores sailed to America to look at the operations of Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck. By 1936, the business had hit the 4 million pound mark, making Moores a millionaire a second time over, by mail order. [19]


James Cash Penney started his first retail store in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming. By 1925, J.C. Penney had 674 stores generating sales of $91 million. In 1962 J.C. Penney bought Wisconsin based General Merchandise Company with discount stores and a mail-order operation. Thus J.C. Penney entered the mail order catalogue business. J.C. Penney, a latecomer in catalogue operations, was different from many of its competitors because it had a large retail store base before launching into the mail-order business. The first J.C. Penney catalog was mailed the next year in 1963. Customers could order from the catalog inside J.C. Penney stores in eight states. The J.C. Penney Catalog Distribution Center was located in Milwaukee. [20]

Catalogues through the ages


Mail order had always relied on the innovative technique of selling products directly to the consumer at appealing prices, [12] but the term "direct marketing" was only coined in 1967, by Lester Wunderman — considered to be the father of contemporary direct marketing. He was behind the creation of the toll-free 1-800 number [12] and numerous mail order based loyalty marketing programs including the Columbia Record Club, the magazine subscription card, and the American Express Customer Rewards program. [21]

Rise of e-commerce

With the invention of the Internet, a company's website became the more usual way to order merchandise for delivery by mail. Unless the retailer provides a paper catalog from which to order, that is if the products are mainly presented to and searched for by the customer on a web site or mobile app, the term "mail order" is rarely used to describe the ordering of goods over the Internet. It is more usual to refer to this as e-commerce or online shopping. Online shopping allows more detailed information (including audio and video) to be presented, and allows for faster ordering than by mailed form (though phone orders are also common for mail-order catalogs). Most traditional mail order companies now also sell over the Internet, in some cases with a PDF or tablet application which allows shoppers to browse an electronic catalog that resembles a paper one very closely, though by the late 2010s this has become increasingly rare, and product information is presented in a format designed for the Web and mobile apps, rather than a PDF.

Rising paper, printing, and postage costs have caused some traditional catalogue merchants, such as Bloomingdale's, to suspend their printed catalogues and sell only through websites. Also, while some Internet merchants are or were also catalogue merchants, many have never had a printed catalogue.

Catalogue publishing

Year Mail Order Catalogues were founded


The objective of the direct marketing industry is to alter the sales distribution chain, in other words [bypass] the wholesaler and the retailer and go directly to the customer, reducing therefore tariffs and taxes. [35]

In the United States, an advantage of this type of shopping is that the merchant is typically not required by law to add sales tax to the price of the goods, unless they have a physical presence in the customer's state. Instead, most states require the resident purchaser to pay applicable taxes. There has been periodic discussion about amending the law to make these sales taxable, especially with the rise of online shopping (see e.g. Amazon tax).

In the European Union, a "VAT union" is in force: the merchant selling to a buyer in a different EU member country adds the VAT of his own country to the price, and the buyer pays no additional tax. A buyer for resale may deduct that VAT, just as with purchases made within his own country. This makes the EU look more like one country than the U.S. in this respect.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Sears, Roebuck and Company, colloquially known as Sears, is a chain of department stores founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1893, reincorporated by Richard Sears and new partner Julius Rosenwald in 1906. Formerly based at the Sears Tower in Chicago and currently headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, the operation began as a mail ordering catalog company and began opening retail locations in 1925. The first location was in Chicago, Illinois. In 2005, the company was bought by the management of the American big box chain Kmart, which formed Sears Holdings upon completion of the merger.

J. C. Penney Company, Inc. is an American department store chain with 865 locations in 49 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. In addition to selling conventional merchandise, J. C. Penney stores often house several leased departments such as Sephora, Seattle's Best Coffee, salons, auto centers, optical centers, portrait studios, and jewelry repair.

Direct marketing type of marketing sending messages directly to consumers

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Aaron Montgomery Ward American businessman

Aaron Montgomery Ward was an American entrepreneur based in Chicago who made his fortune through the use of mail order for retail sales of general merchandise to rural customers. In 1872 he founded Montgomery Ward & Company, which became nationally known.

Montgomery Ward Inc. is the name of two historically distinct American retail enterprises. It can refer either to the original Montgomery Ward, a defunct mail order and department store retailer which operated between 1872 and 2001, or to the current, eponymous catalog and online retailer also known as Wards.

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The Allstate Corporation is an American insurance company that is in the United States. The company also has personal lines insurance operations in Canada. Allstate was founded in 1931 as part of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and was spun off in 1993. The company has had its headquarters in Northfield Township, Illinois, near Northbrook since 1967.

A discount store or discount shop is a retail shop which sells products at prices that are lower than the typical market price.

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GUS (retailer) company

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Pryce Pryce-Jones British politician born in Wales

Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones was a Welsh entrepreneur who formed the first mail order business, revolutionising how products were sold. Creating the first mail order catalogues – which consisted of woollen goods – for the first time customers could order by post, and the goods were delivered by railway.


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Freemans is a British catalogue clothing retailer.


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Further reading