Since its inception in the late 19th century, Britain's mail order industry both exploited and generated social networks in building its businesses. The common foundation of the sector was the agency system; Sales were made through catalogs held by agents, ordinary people in families, neighborhoods, pubs, clubs and workplaces. Through this agency system mail order firms in Britain were able to tap social networks both to build a customer base, but also to obtain vital information on credit worthiness. In this, the first comprehensive history of the British mail order industry, the authors combine business and social history to fully explain the features and workings of this industry. They show how British general mail order industry firms such as Kay and Co., Empire Stores, Littlewoods, and Grattan grew from a range of businesses as diverse as watch sales or football pools. A range of business innovations and strategies were developed throughout the twentieth century, including technological development and labor process rationalization. Indeed, the sector was in the vanguard of many aspects of change from supply chain logistics to computerization. The social and gender profile of the home shopper also changed markedly as the industry developed. These changes are charted, from the male-dominated origins of the industry to the growing influence of women both within the firm and, more importantly, as the centre of the mail order market. The book also draws parallels and contrasts with the much more widely studied mail order industry of the United States. The final section of the book examines the rise of internet shopping and the new challenges and opportunities it provided for the mail order industry. Here the story is one of continuity and fracture as the established mail order companies struggle to adjust to a business environment which they had partly created, but which also rested on a new range of core competencies and technological and demographic change.
About the Author
Richard Coopey lectures in history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Previously he was Senior Research Fellow at the Business History Unit of the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests include the history of technology, banking, retailing, and water resources. Publications include 3i: Fifty Years Investing in Industry with D. Clarke (OUP, 1995), Britain in the 1970s: The Troubled Economy with N. Woodward (UCL, 1995), and Information Technology Policy: An International History (OUP, 2004). Sean O'Connell is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Ulster. His first monograph was The Car in British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring 1896-1939 (Manchester University Press, 1998). A second monograph (Class, Community, and Credit in the UK since 1880), drawing upon research financed by the ESRC, is currently being prepared for publication by Oxford University Press. O'Connell has also recently received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to investigate the history of joyriding, using Belfast as a case study. Dilwyn Porter is Reader in History at University College Worcester and an honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the Business History Unit, London School of Economics. He has published on aspects of business, media, and sports history in Business History, Business Archives, Contemporary British History, Media History, the International Review of Retailing, Distribution and Consumer Research and Sport in History. With Adrian Smith, he recently edited Sport and National Identity in the Post-War World (Routledge, 2004). He is currently writing Close to Power, a study of financial journalism in Britain since the late nineteenth century, for Oxford University Press.