The 1980’s was a very popular decade for the mail order catalogue, and whilst many of these old catalogues still exist today they are not what they used to be in terms of size and range of goods. This can probably be attributed to two main causes – one being the Internet (and indeed most of these catalogues have an Internet presence too) the other being the fact that people are now much more able to get to the shops, now that we have Sunday shopping and more people have access to cars and other forms of transport than ever before.
Some of the best known catalogues available were Littlewoods (presumably the same Littlewoods as the high street shop and the football pools), Kays, Empire Stores and Marshall Ward. The interesting thing about the way the catalogues worked was that they were normally commission based. Once you signed up for a particular catalogue you became an “agent” for that catalogue, and would receive a percentage back on all the things that were bought by you. To make the most of this it was therefore important that you persuaded as many friends and relations as possible to flick through the book and order something.
Most of these mail order catalogues allowed you to buy just about anything you could think of, from electronics to toys to garden furniture to clothes. In fact, clothes was where the catalogues were predominantly focused, with probably most of the book devoted to womens, mens and childrens outfits. One area where they excelled over shops was with the range available for a particular item of clothing. Quite often the catalogues carried clothes in the harder to buy sizes, and each item would normally be available in a number of different colours. Presumably in an attempt to appear more up-market, the colours were never black, white, grey, green and beige but black, white, charcoal, olive and stone.
I remember my Mum being an agent for Marshall Ward. She had a big book full of order forms which she filled in and sent off in the post when she wanted to buy something. A week or two later it would be delivered by the “White Arrow Man”. White Arrow was (and I believe still is) a courier firm, and they had an arrangement with Marshall Ward to deliver items and pick up any items that needed to be returned because they did fit or you just didn’t like them. I’m not sure exactly how it worked, but I remember my Mum had a piece of card with the White Arrow company logo on it that she had to hang in the window whenever she had something to return. I can only assume a White Arrow van was contracted to drive around your local area looking for the sign in any window.
The prices in the catalogues varied. Clothes were generally fairly reasonably priced, but some of the more expensive items such as bicycles or electronic equipment could be overpriced by fifty pounds or more – quite a bit of money in those days. The catalogues also normally offered some kind of finance scheme, where you could pay for the item in weekly installments. I must thank the Marshall Ward catalogue for teaching me about the downfalls of buying something on finance, as I was always alarmed as a child when I got my Dad’s pocket calculator and worked out the total cost if you paid weekly. I was sure there must be some mistake because of the huge difference in price, but Mum assured me it was correct, and so I learned to be wary of those seemingly great finance offers you see whenever you really want a particular item.