A Look At Life: Mail Order

3rd August 2012


Heather Harris

Johnny Boden definitely fancies me. Despite regularly rebuffing this fashion guru’s promises to ‘add colour to my summer wardrobe’ or warm me up ‘with an incredible winter offer’ he still persists. Last week he even sent me a catalogue telling me how long it was since I was last in touch, in an envelope entitled “Heather Harris, we’ve missed you”.

And I’ve never even met the man. In fact I used to think that he was an urban myth: like Robin Hood but in a Breton striped jumper with matching chinos. But no, when I rang the helpline of the £500 million company that bears his name to complain about the sheer amount of communication – it was the man himself on the phone.
Okay, so it was a recording, but it was spooky nevertheless.

And clearly I am not the only object of his affections. A survey of all the middle income, multi-tasking women in my address book reveals just how busy Mr Boden is. All of them receive mail order catalogues from his clothing company more often than letters from their own loved ones.

Basic investigative journalism skills soon revealed how he has my address. Apparently, I once bought a polka dot skirt with matching orange cardigan, in a fit of panic. My son was moving to a new school in the leafy suburbs and I needed the official Boden school gate uniform (almost as expensive as my son’s, but without the name tapes).
That was in 1999 and after a swift realisation that I was more a taupe (brown) and olive (green) girl for whom the words ‘hand wash inside out’ might as well say ‘build a nuclear reactor’, I reverted to Mr Marks and Mr Spencer.

Mr Boden and his marketing team don’t take rejection kindly, though, and believe that one day I may crack under the weight of their catalogues and find myself yearning to deck my children out in their matching ‘half-zip fleeces with a nautical theme’ or shoes that clash with everything, including their legs.

Meanwhile the spotless people over at The White Company clearly suffer under the same delusion. Despite the fact that with a hairy dog, equally hairy husband and three children nothing in my house stays white for as long as it takes to read their glossy catalogues, they still send them.

Buying a scented candle for a friend’s wedding – in the days before you just gave cash – has clearly given them the impression that I want to be bombarded with literature about the virtues of ‘crisp linen’ and ‘pearly tulip vases’.

At least with Lakeland I do find myself inexplicably excited about a banana-shaped canister … for storing bananas. The children enjoy a flick through the gadget section to see what will entice their techno-obsessed father, such as a machine for simultaneously making waffles, muffins and doughnuts: clearly invented by a man; a woman would have had it doing the hovering and a bit of light dusting as well...

Historically, mail order was all about ‘cutting out the middle man’. In 1872 American retailer, Aaron Montgomery Ward started to buy goods and resell directly to customers, bypassing the man at the general store and thus charging lower prices. (These days, my mother cuts out the middle man by placing her recycling bin directly under her letterbox so everything goes straight in…)

Montgomery Ward’s first catalogue was a single paper with a price list, 8 by 12 inches. Within two decades it had grown into a 540 page illustrated book selling over 20,000 items.

Here it was Sir John Moores, founder of the Littlewoods retail company, who really delivered the goods when it came to mail order shopping. In 1932 he published the first Littlewoods catalogue: 168 pages plus a snappy little motto: ‘We hoist our Flag in the Port of Supply and right away we sail to the Ports of Demand – the Homes of the People. Our Catalogue is our Ship – staffed by an All British Crew…’

Even today, in our increasingly paperless society, the whole idea of buying from a catalogue is clearly still afloat. Mr Boden’s sales figures are as bright as his cardigans.
The fact is, mail order goes hand in hand (fingerless in three vibrant colours) with the internet, which has given the concept a new lease of life… sit at home in a comfortable chair, leaf through the pages, click, and wait for our chosen items to be delivered to the door. Easy.

Without the huge thud of glossy pages on doormat, how dull the daily post would be. But if Mr Boden and his over-enthusiastic colleagues at The White Company, Lands End, Coopers of Stortford, Cotton Traders and Joe Browns etc could just realise that when it comes to catalogues, less is more, we might even get back in touch.

Dear Johnny…

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