It’s funny how the creative journey guides you down an unexpected path. Traveling off the beaten path isn’t a matter of losing focus but more about exploring ideas and thoughts to a sometimes enlightening conclusion. Earlier today I was running through some ideas for an ad creative to promote catalogues; right, that seems a little backward for a digital guy like me living and playing in an e-commerce world. Nobody is going back to the horse & carriage as a viable means of transportation and today’s consumers certainly aren’t reaching for catalogues to discover the latest and greatest product offerings from our big box retailers, but I digress.
So off I go, losing focus, I mean exploring an idea about catalogues and a few clicks later I land on the Canadian Museum of History website, specifically Civilization.ca – Before e-commerce, A history of Canadian mail-order catalogues. Slowly but surely I get sucked in and what kind of “Digital Commerce” guy would I be if I hadn’t? This stuff is very interesting, to say the least, because it veers off in so many directions. Forget about the obvious, the era and the organizational challenges of a department-store catalogue business; let’s focus on the complex human elements that made mail-order catalogues in Canada successful, this is definitely a history lesson worth reading.
As a consumer, I love this…
I can shop at a modern department store anywhere in Canada without leaving home. I choose what I want, mail my order, and presto! the package is delivered to my mailbox.
WOW, does that sound like e-commerce to you!
In 1869, Timothy Eaton introduced the unusual concepts of “One Price Only” and “Cash Only” to the public in order to eliminate time lost during the bartering process and/or a cash deficit while goods were on credit. As methods of payment both the bartering and credit systems were flawed, resulting in price variations for goods and the potential to create cash flow shortages for the merchant. Another of Eaton’s revolutionary business policies was “Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded”, imagine anything different. Goods found to be unsatisfactory could be returned to the store for exchange or refund; honesty and reliability were qualities of the Eaton’s reputation.
In 1884, the first Eaton’s catalogue, called “The Wishing Book” is distributed to visitors at the Toronto exhibition. Timothy Eaton expresses his vision for the catalogue in 1887:
This catalogue is destined to go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion. We have the facilities for filling mail orders satisfactorily, no matter how far the letter has to come and the goods have to go.
Mail-order companies were capable of handling large volumes of business in a short period of time. As an example, during the 1930s, the Toronto Eaton’s mail-order office processed 30,000 transactions per day while the Winnipeg Eaton’s office handled an impressive 47,735 orders in one workday. Eaton’s operated on a grand scale with large facilities in Toronto, Winnipeg and Moncton. Catalogue shopping was ground-breaking in that it made up-to-date fashions and styles available to people in remote farming communities.
The Eaton’s Mail-Order Company (T. Eaton Company Limited) understood how essential employee morale was to the company’s success and the role it played in workplace comradery through deliberate social development. Hey “Startup Culture” there’s nothing new about this, it’s just that “Corporate Culture” has lost sight of what really matters in the workplace; the employees! Work was more entertaining with occasional on-the-job socializing. There was a games room adjacent to the cafeteria which made a good place to make friends, as was the cloakroom. There were company newsletters, softball, bowling and hockey leagues, summer camps, the annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste day parade in Montréal, and the Santa Claus parade in Toronto. In essence, it was the company-sponsored leisure and on-the-job social exchange between employees that made a sustainable work environment, go figure.
There’s a lot of really interesting material out there on this topic and instead of stripping out the good parts and voicing them here, check out the links scattered throughout this post. One last thing I’ll add before closing off; back in July 2011 my family and I took a day trip, not far from our family cottage, to Lang Pioneer Village Museum in Keene, Ontario. At that time they had a special exhibit on display called “From Eaton’s to eBay: Shopping from Home” which examined the evolution of home shopping in Canada and provided a history of the Eaton’s Company since its inception in 1884, following the introduction of the Eaton’s Catalogue; watch the lightbox popup video now.
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