In 1886 a large order of watches arrived by freight train in North Redwood, Minnesota, where it was rejected by the local jeweler to whom it was bound. That’s when freight agent Richard Warren Sears saw an opportunity. He bought the watches and turned around to sell them again at a tidy profit. From this first small taste of success, he decided to begin a mail order business. He found a partner in watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck and soon created a thriving mail order jewelry and watch business that the two decided to base out of Chicago.
The R. W. Sears Watch Company was a success and made the two men a small fortune when they sold it in 1889. Sears turned his attention then to other career opportunities, but the catalog business had captured his imagination and just three years later, he and his partner once again started a mail order company that this time would catapult them to fame and glory.
Sears, Roebuck, & Company offered the products most residents of rural America would have to haggle for at their general stores, which offered both higher prices and narrower selections. In a year’s time, the company’s three hundred-page catalog had grown to a five hundred-page catalog offering everything from underwear to musical instruments to cars and even modular homes.
For a brief time, while Sears himself was still in charge of some of the ad copy, you could even buy a sewing machine for the bargain price of $1, that turned out to be nothing more than a needle and thread.
And that’s pretty much why I hate ordering through the mail. I know it’s just a way of life, especially now when most brick and mortar stores, at least in my corner of the world, are closed for the foreseeable future.
Like most authors, I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I grudgingly admit that despite the impersonal customer service that I have to angrily beg for to receive any response, the continual and seemingly random removal of reader reviews on my books, and the impenetrable mystery that is the magic of keywords, if it weren’t for the ‘Zon, I’d sell a much smaller handful of books.
Fortunately, and also maybe a little bit unfortunately, other retailers have gotten into the online ordering game now, too. It’s helping to keep smaller businesses afloat during a tough time. For that, I’m grateful.
But, man, I miss physically going to a store to browse the shelves and actually see what I’m purchasing. It’s a frustrating process to shop for that pair of jeans that fits perfectly or a set of curtains in just the right shade of green or a pair of sunglasses that won’t make me look like an overrated celebrity hoping I’ll be noticed trying not to be noticed.
With online shopping, not only do I have to wait to learn that I can’t force my new jeans over my wide hips, but now I have to repack them and ship them back. Or take the loss, pass them along to some slender-hipped friend in need, and continue wearing yoga pants.
And it doesn’t really matter what I’m ordering. It will never fit. Or it won’t be the right color or the right dimensions or the right fabric that won’t make me break out in hives. I am a terrible online shopper. I have no doubt that I’d have been the customer dumb enough to purchase a needle and thread from Sears instead of an actual sewing machine.
Alas, this is the world we live in, where even our toilet paper has to be purchased on the internet. I’m sure I could find a way to botch that, too.
16 thoughts on “Click to Buy: One Size Fits No One”
Great article. Although I will buy almost anything online because I flat out hate to go shopping, clothes are the exception to that rule. Unless I’m repurchasing something I’ve bought in the past and know I love, online clothing purchases are a frequent disappointment. For everything else, point me to a browser window and let go of my credit card. 😉
I know lots of people prefer it. I’m just old school. I do kind of enjoy shopping…poking around on shelves and finding that perfect, interesting thing I didn’t know I was looking for. It is nice sometimes when I know exactly what I’m after, though, and I can just find it right away online. Sometimes.
Right there with you, Sarah. I’m a terrible shopper, period. I don’t enjoy it and my on-line purchases are minimal. I’ve never even tried to order clothes or shoes, Guess I’ll stay in my sweatpants a little longer.
I did have to break down and order some summer clothes for one of my sons. Fortunately he only wants to wear elastic band athletic shorts a tee shirts anyway, so hopefully we did okay. Shipping is taking a while, though, even from clothing stores that don’t ship essential goods.
The history of retail is fascinating but I think the Internet puts a wildcard in a lot of hands that it normally wouldn’t. The current battle between Amazon and Walmart will be interesting to watch over the next several years.
For me, most shopping (pre-lockdown) is done in thrift stores and used book stores. I find a lot of treasures.
That’s the fun shopping! Yes, I think WalMart is benefitting from the pandemic because they’re quickly shipping the goods Amazon is holding back on and undercutting them on shipping costs, too. It will be interesting to see how that all shakes out. I guess maybe two giants sharing the majority of the market is better than a single giant strangling out all the smaller competition? I don’t know.
The giants will keep duking it out and I think it will be a benefit. In my time I have seen them come and go. Including, in our area anyway, 7-11 getting beat up by Kum & Go.
I’ve only ever bought luxury items on line and rarely – like a grandfather clock, and a turkey carving dish. That way I can get the one I want! Regarding your book reviews – none of the reviews of your books (two) that I’ve posted have ever made an appearance! Re pre-pandemic clothes? – every stitch I wear is second hand; colorful, slightly eccentric, and old-fashioned enough to be trendy!
I love that! The second hand shops are closed now, too. I should be okay with my current wardrobe anyway. My boys, however, especially the younger one, have gotten bigger since last summer. Don’t worry about the reviews. I’ve given up trying to figure them out. Apparently if I’ve ever had any contact (even virtually) with the reviewer that invalidates the review. Of course as a tiny little author without a large marketing team behind me, pretty much the only way anyone ever knows about my books is through personal contact. Oh well.
It is scary how much that Sears photo looks EXACTLY like the Sears that used to be at Clackamas Town Center!! I have a few old catalogs from my grandfather and they are good for a laugh.
As for online shopping, we’ve been ordering our groceries online then going to the store where they bring the order out to the car. The broccoli is always way bigger than anything I’d pick out (like it’s a limb from a giant broccoli tree!) and the bananas too small since Hubs and I are sharing them to make them last longer.
I don’t miss clothes shopping (mostly done at the charity shop) but man, I do miss picking out my own produce.
I haven’t done online grocery shopping yet since I’m still able to find enough off times to go when there aren’t too many people in the store, but I hear about funny substitutions sometimes. I have a friend who recently asked for cream of mushroom soup and the receipts said Walmart subbed a printer cartridge for it, which I imagine didn’t go as well in her casserole.
I don’t know about that…to me most canned soup tastes like it might be made of printers cartridges. I have been marking No Substitutions, so things have been safe so far. We did finally break down last night and went to a grocery store after not being in one for nearly six weeks. It was sad how excited we were.
Was it weird? Every time I’ve got it just feels kind of surreal. Everyone keeps their distance, which is good, but no one talks to each other and it’s hard to read expressions with almost everyone in masks. I do not enjoy it.
It was a little odd because we went at 8pm and the store was almost empty. Plus the aisles were one way only so there was a lot of looping back when I forgot something (d’oh!), but boy it felt good to pick out my own apples and bananas…which sounds so sad 😉
Great post – it always intrigues me how the notion of ‘buying online’ and having it delivered isn’t actually new. I can just imagine how Messrs Sears & Roebuck would have done had the internet been around then! Years ago my wife used to get a catalogue titled ‘Ezibuy’ – a glossy print mag for mail-order clothes purchase, and bought occasional stuff from it. I never did. I used to make jokes about the name, though, to me it looked like it should be pronounced ‘Essie buy’, and did that mean it was really directed at a customer called Esme?
I’m pretty sure I would have been lousy at ordering from catalogs, too, although pictures in a glossy magazine seem less risky than digital pictures somehow.