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A history of Mail Order Catalogues in the UK

The history of mail order or home shopping catalogues began at the end of the eighteenth century when Kays of Worcester issued their first bound catalogue. Although Kays of Worcester went on to become Kays catalogue, selling a range of fashion and homeware products, the first simple catalogues of the late 1890's were filled with watches, clocks and jewellery.


The beginning of the next century would see the growth of mail order catalogue as shopping trends changed and housewives reallised that time could be saved and options expanded by choosing to shop with home shopping catalogues.


Empire Stores published it's first mail order catalogue around the end of the 19th century. The Fattorini Watch Club had become a great success and to reach more people a simple catalogue of watches was available for customers to order their watch and have it dispatched in the post. Universal Stores expanded the business to include a general range of household products alongside their watches and this formed the basis for one of the first home shopping catalogues of it's type. Of course, Empire Stores continued to grow as more and more product categories were added to the mix until you have the mail order catalogue of today with over 40,000 products.


Kays catalogue also began life over two hundred years ago selling watches from a shop in Worcester. At the end of the eighteenth century Kay & Co Limited began their mail order business sell watches and jewellery. In 1902 the company decided to diversify and began also selling Manchester Goods and Ladies Tailoring. Manchester goods were linens, towels and sheets, the name derived from the fact that Manchester was the center of the cotton industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Anyway, over the next decades, William Kay and his sons travelled throughout the UK and Europe finding new contacts and adding new merchandise to the Kays catalogue that saw it become one of the most popular home shopping catalogues in the modern retail era. However, the Shop Direct group bought Kays catalogue in 2008 to add it to it's growing portfolio of mail order catalogues and by 2010 it had merged Kays catalogue with 2 other of it's acquisitions to create a brand new home shopping catalogue, K and Co.


Littlewoods catalogue was the brainchild of John Moores, the millionaire founder of the Littlewoods Pools empire. John apparently came up with the idea of creating a new mail order catalogue business on the golf course while playing a round with his brother Cecil. In the early 1930's, he produced a simple catalogue, basically a printed list of clothes and household products, and sent it to groups of people who formed shopping clubs and the organiser of these groups would collect money of it's members and send roughly between one and two pounds a week to Littlewoods. These people would then draw lots to see who would gets their goods first. These clubs were therefore known as "turns" clubs and were the lynchpin of the growth of the Littlewoods catalogue.


Over in Germany, the Otto Group of home shopping catalogues has seen one company with 3 employees grow from the ashes of post-war Germany into now probably the largest home shopping companies in the world. Otto now owns some of the UK's top catalogues Freemans and Grattans as well as BonPrix in Germany.


The function of the home shopping and mail order catalogue can possibly be seen to be changing since the advent of the internet. Although million of traditional catalogues are dispatched to customers every year, more and more shoppers prefer to do their actual ordering online via one of the home shopping catalogues own websites. However, traditional catalogues can provide an inspiration for shoppers choosing what to buy and therefore will continue to be important for the home shopping retail market.