When Jeff Banks of Warehouse and George Davies of Next start making announcements about a totally new concept in shopping within a week of one another, the fashion business sits up. Both Banks and Davies have seen the future, and it is not, surprisingly, a picture of a thronged high street that is exciting them. It is more a vision of time-pressured, middle-class people with nice incomes sitting at home with their feet up, perusing mail order catalogues.
Banks saw it first. At the beginning of the year he tested the water with the launch of ByMail, a separate catalogue collection of clothes designed by his Warehouse team, distributed and handled by the mail order company, Freeman’s. The reception in the trade was sceptical. Some opined, a touch gleefully, that Banks was making a big mistake in dabbling with such a traditionally downmarket operation. They were wrong.
‘A year ago, it was interesting that everyone was criticising us for diluting our business with mail order,’ reflects Banks. ‘Now they all want to get in on the act. In years to come, I think people will look back on us as altering the way we run our lives. Once people discover there’s no need always to travel into urban centres to shop, the structures of the high street will change. There will be a move towards smaller, more specialist shops complemented by a wide range of mail order shopping options from home. It’s already happening in the US.’
The seed of the mail order revolution lie in the link up between direct telephone ordering and the credit card, which provides an alternative system to the old-established networks of catalogue agents selling to friends and neighbours who pay by installment. The old-style selling has its roots in the 1920s and ’30s, when 20 working class women would band together in “Turns Clubs,” such as the one set up by Great Universal Stores (GUS), paying a shilling a week and drawing lots to decide who would choose an item to the value of £1 each week – a way of buying goods even when you were on the poverty line.
With the doing away of the need for the agent, a concept alien to the middle classes, there is the possibility of offering stress-free convenience shopping with no more bother attached than flipping through a brochure, picking up a phone and quoting a credit card number. Added to which, there’s the considerable advantage of being able to try the goods on in your own bedroom, in front of your own mirror and with your own accessories. A service tailor-made for young aspiring couples with full-time jobs who find the scrum of Saturday shopping less than thrilling.
In only two editions, ByMail proved that mail order can break through the snobbery barrier to reach those highly desirable yuppie consumers. Freemans discovered that, in addition to appealing to its existing customers, the new look ByMail catalogue, photographed and laid out to the highest fashion magazine standards, had pulled in orders from 140,000 ABC1 respondents.
Peter Smith, Director at Freeman’s said: ‘It was clear from our analysis that we were tapping a completely new market, the sort of people who wouldn’t have dreamed of using mail order in the past. ‘ And everyone wants a slice of that action.
So far, pronouncements from Next about their catalogue launches for autumn ’87 have tended towards the inspirational but cryptic. George Davies, renowned for his sweeping and spontaneous decision-making has been locked in conference with Grattan chief executive, David Jones, and even Next employees are in the dark about concrete plans. Only George knows, and perhaps George has not quite made up his mind yet: we must be content simply to wait for something totally different.
Just how different is the question. What’s for sure is that packaging – up till now, Next’s main strength – is not enough. If one is hoping to approach a discriminating consumer with money to spend, it is not enough simply to make a catalogue look smart, trendy and a totally different beast from the doorstep sized tomes of old. The goods, too, must be classy, well-made and in line with high fashion. Will Next be ready to meet the challenge?
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