Thursday, February 3, 2022

Mail Order

At one time in this country, ordering things through the mail was an ordeal. Half the time you never received your goods, either!

We take for granted today that you can click your mouse and order just about anything over the Internet and have it delivered in a matter of days.  I've bought everything from light bulbs to a hot tub online, and never once had an issue where I didn't receive what I ordered.  The only issue I ever had was when Amazon sent me the lower half of a toilet for some reason - and they told me to keep it, rather than send it back.

Before the Internet, however, mail-order was a real hassle.  You would get catalogs in the mail, and each one came with an order form which you had to laboriously fill out with the product name, the product number, price, shipping, and taxes.  You totaled it all up, wrote out a "check or money order" and mailed it off to Lands End or whatever.  Weeks later, your order would arrive (you would hope) in the mail, and sometimes you even got what you ordered.  If the item was wrong or didn't fit, well, sending it back was an even greater pain-in-the-ass.

There were always these cheesy catalogs like Carol Wright, which had a lot of stuff your grandma would buy, like little booties to put over her low-heel shoes.  Or a plastic cover to keep ice off the windshield of her Studebaker.  Or clamp-on ice grippers - again for those low-heel shoes - so she wouldn't slip on the ice.  A lot of grandmas apparently had anxiety about winter weather back then.  But then again, back then, half the population of the United States lived in the northeast.

One of the funniest things they sold in the catalog was a "personal massager" which was obviously a sex toy vibrator.  But in the ad, it showed a lady massaging her face with it.  And this catalog was mailed out to every home in America back in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  Apparently the old ladies, besides being worried about winter storms, were also very lonely.

Every newspaper had a "consumer help" column, and almost every month, someone would write in to complain that they sent off a "check or money order" to some sketchy mail-order place they saw advertised in the back of a magazine - and got nothing in return.  The advice columnist would chastise them and say, "You should never mail off money to people you don't know!" and likely this was something the newspaper's advertisers were glad to hear.  They didn't want people buying things by mail order when they could be sold at a brick-and-mortar store.

Of course, mail order goes back long before that time.  Sears, Roebuck & Co. started out as a mail-order company, and you could buy everything from clothing to buggies to farm implements to actual houses (shipped in pieces by rail car) and later on, even cars.  Mark's grandfather build a "Sears House" in Old Greenwich, Connecticut back in the day.  Today, they are deemed historic.

Sears dropped the ball on mail order.  Over the years, they made more money with their downtown "department store" locations, and late on as anchors for suburban malls.  They let the catalog die on the vine - a catalog that its own soft-core porn like Carol Wright.  The sad thing is, they abandoned the catalog just at the dawn of online retailing.  "If only" they had gotten out in front on this, well, the world might be a different place.  And I am sure someone at Sears, back in the 1980's or 1990's tried to propose this, but was shot down by upper management at the time.  Recall that Sears sold home computers and even had a dial-up network called "Prodigy" for a while.

Mail order was handy, back then, for specialty items.  As kids, we ordered our model rockets from Estes, as the local "toy store" or hobby shop didn't sell them.  If you were into collector cars, well, chances are, there was a catalog or two for your make or model.  And of course, there was J.C. Whitney, which sold the cheapest parts available, and always had a section for Volkswagen Beetles and Model-T Fords.  There was also a two-page spread for light-up hood ornaments!

But that was back then.  Today, many of these catalogs are still around - but as online websites.  Apparently Carol Wright has gotten past its slap-and-tickle stage and has pages of vibrators for sale, which are not called "personal massagers" anymore.  They have dropped the pretense.  JC Whitney is still around, but quite frankly, I don't find their prices and selection to be so great anymore.  No more Model T or Beetle parts!  Those cars all went to the junkyard or became garage queens.

And ordering online has become reliable and trustworthy, for the most part - sites like Quibids, Woot!, and notwithstanding.  You order something from Amazon or eBay or Walmart, you generally get it, unless the "3rd party merchant" is some sort of scam artist.  Even ordering stuff directly from China is reliable, if not a little bit slow.

So, what's the point of all this?  I dunno.  Perhaps just reflecting on how our world has changed dramatically within one lifetime.  Things that we thought were permanent parts of the landscape disappeared, a little bit at first, and then overnight, they were gone.  Or so it seems.

We worry about harmful things and trends, but they also disappear within a few years.  The thousand-year Reich lasted only a decade or so.   The pandemic will die down, eventually.  Three years is not a long time.  Talk of permanent pandemic is nonsense.  If nothing else, everyone who is susceptible to this virus will eventually die off.  Labor shortages turn to labor surpluses.  Bull markets to bears and back again.  Liberals become conservatives and vice-versa.  What seems like insurmountable problems look trivial after a decade or so - or they become a new norm, but not for long.

The 1%'ers, like their robber-baron forebears, will dissipate their wealth among their children, who will be far less likely to take risks and more likely to squander their wealth on pleasure-seeking.  Governments will change and opinions will change and tax rates will change.  Politicians will come and go, mostly because they age out.  How long can 70- and 80-year old politicians last, particularly if they are in poor health?  This too, shall pass.

We still get catalogs, of course.  But rather than a means of ordering merchandise, they are really just a form of junk mail - enticing us to order online.  No longer does the detachable "order form" come with the catalog, with its convoluted instructions on how to calculate sales tax and shipping.

It was kind of fun, in a way.  But I don't miss it all that much!