Our Century City: Bricks, Mortar, And Mail Orders

There have been some serious questions in recent years as to whether online shopping will eventually replace corner store sales. There are pros and cons to shopping either way, but believe it or not the question of mail-order shopping's impact on our local brick and mortar stores is not a new one.

Over a century ago, Sears, Roebuck, and Company started a mail-order catalog. From its offices in centrally located Chicago, Sears sent catalogs far and wide. People living on farms and in small towns suddenly had access to virtually any product that a retailer could sell. Anything from pianos to post-hole diggers could be ordered by freight and would soon arrive at your farm house door. Whether one needed a new dress, or even a whole house, with a buckboard wagon to go along with it, Sears was ready, willing, and able to provide the goods at a reasonable cost.

The funny story about older Sears catalogs being used as toilet paper in outhouses was, at times, true. While perhaps not quite as soft as today's paper, compared to using a bug-infested corncob, those pages at least got the job done while providing some quiet reading and reflection time for the otherwise busy farmer. An ongoing point of marital dispute around kitchen tables back then was when Farmer John used and tossed the women's section of the catalog down the potty hole.

Other companies like Spiegel and Montgomery Ward also provided their own catalogs. Specialty catalogs also came along that targeted certain segments of the population. Farmers and mechanics had their own special-interest catalogs, as did the wealthy. Still, all in all, it was the major "handle-virtually-everything" catalogs that changed the way so much business was done in America. Bringing practical everyday items to a national mass marketplace at "eliminate the middleman" prices was a sales technique that is still being successfully practiced by online retailers today.

Today, it's virtually impossible for anything, whether new or used, to be "hard to find." A few minutes poking around on the internet and a shopper will likely find the object of his or her desires. There are always occasions where specific items that you may have trouble finding locally can be procured by making just a few mouse clicks, or by touching your smart phone's screen a few times. That sort of convenience is hard to argue with, but at the same time, dealing with pixels on a computer screen carries its own risks because the people behind those pixels are often unknown to the buyer. There are, of course, many rip-offs and scams on the internet, as in life, and you need to tread the retail road carefully, no matter where or when you attempt to purchase something. Recently, for example, a major big-box brick-and-mortar retailer had a huge and well-publicized security breach, so even buying in a local store is not entirely without risk.

These days, it seems that consumers have access to an array of goods and services that is simply mind-boggling. Comparison price-shopping is easier than ever. Our smart phones can look up information for us in seconds that was never before available to the public. The tensions between local business and mail-order or internet sales remain, of course, as it is difficult for a local business to compete, price-wise, against internet sales. Where local stores are able to compete very well would be in the areas of personal service and products that people can see and take home right away.

Overall, mail-order and internet sales continue to be a significant part of the retail market in our country and around the world. Looking back at old mail-order catalogs, one can also see retail trends develop. I happen to have two similar catalogs from the early 1960's and the early 1970's. When I look at the music section, for example, most of the mail-order guitars sold in the first catalog were American-made in Chicago, while the guitars in the second catalog were mostly foreign-made. Indeed, the same can be said for many other products that were sold in those catalogs. By the end of the 1970's, it would be safe to assume that many traditionally American manufacturing companies had either started making things overseas themselves or would be going out of business soon, as the world's economy began to intertwine with ours in a big way whether we liked it or not.

Nowadays, I do try to look for American-made products, but that search seems to be more and more difficult. Indeed, just about any major product that I've bought lately has been a blend of parts that were made in multiple countries. New country-of-origin labels on products seem to be popping up all the time too, as ever-cheaper labor pools are sought by entreprenuers around the world. Computer-based design and manufacturing (CAD-CAM) has enabled so many products to be made for less cost and by fewer people, along with ever-greater accuracy and almost-always-improving quality control. The brand new technology of 3D copying machines has also introduced a completely new playing field. I've known several musical instrument manufacturers in our country that have been flabbergasted at how quickly inexpensive overseas copies of their designs have flooded the market. Many manufacturers are being forced to come up with more designed-in counterfeit-resistant countermeasures to combat a potential flood of illegal copies.

I love to shop locally, especially in Lakewood. It's a great comfort to be able to know and trust the establishment that you are dealing with. Some of our stores have been around for many years, and that's a terrific compliment to them. The world of competitive retail is always changing too, as products continually emerge, evolve, and sometimes disappear from our landscape. It is admittedly tempting to shop online, and at times, that may indeed be the way to go. Fundamentally, the timeless and always-important questions of value, personal service, and guaranteed quality will almost always continue to determine which retailers will succeed and which will fail--whether those would be online or just up the street from your home.

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Volume 10, Issue 13, Posted 7:20 AM, 06.25.2014