Canadians are in general not great direct mail shoppers, whether via catalogue or online. This has been attributed to a lack of homegrown selection, and the lack of a ‘catalogue’ culture that is so present in the U.S. However, until the mid-twentieth century, the majority of Canadians didn’t live in major centres and many relied on catalogue shopping for family basics like clothes and appliances… and apparently houses.
I recently read an article (Globe and Mail, April 1, 2005 – requires subscription) on mail-order houses popular in the prairies in the early 1900s. The author of “Catalogue Houses: Eatons’ and Others,” Les Henry, grew up in such a house in Saskatchewan.
This story struck me for two reasons for its similarities to doing business online. The first is the opportunity to serve a market that is not being served, or is under-served, and customers can’t readily get those goods elsewhere. The second is that with a trusted brand you can expand your product lines where others have failed. The most obvious example is Amazon.
The Catologue Houses story was simple: a lumber dispute between mills and farmers infuriated the farm community, drove up prices, created a lot of distrust and provided an opportunity for companies like Eatons to fill a need: purchase a quality home by mail-order catalogue.
This was not a pre-fab home, or a little shack, but a 3-4 bedroom, 2 storey house, complete with porch and gables, electricity and even central vacuuming in 1918. These were well-constructed houses that continue to provide a home for successive generations of families.
You still needed to hire a contractor; your order would include blueprints plus all the required wood, hardware and millwork. This allowed for freedom to customize the finished home to suit the owner. If you wanted to order blueprints first, you could order them and then receive a credit upon purchase of a house.
Haven’t we similarly talked about custom manufacturing in the same way? In Japan you can order a car to your specs, and automakers in North America have played with this concept of making your option choices online, at least in a mock form. Seems we could still go further.
There was something else that touched me about this story: trust. It could be nostalgia for another time, even recalling the early days of the net and how much goodwill there was before it became mainstream and phishing and other scams became so prevalent. That idealism is a little rusty these days. But not for Les Henry. If you are interested in his book, “Catalogue Houses: Eatons’ and Others,” he takes the “shareware” approach. Mail your request and he’ll ship the book to you in advance of payment with the invoice, you simply return a cheque for $29.99 CD plus shipping and handling and applicable taxes. Contact: Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Crescent, Saskatoon, SK, S7H 3H7.