Catalogue girls: buying from The Club
Sandy Gent remembers the world of mail order shopping and how special it was the day the catalogue arrived…
When I hear youngsters talking about internet shopping, I have to smile. In many ways the idea of ordering unseen goods was so reminiscent of that dear old friend, the mail order catalogue!
Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, those huge books from Freemans, Kays and Great Universal Stores were the mainstay of many a working-class home. They offered so much and the weekly payments meant they were accessible to all!
Our ‘agent’ was Nan’s neighbour, Marjorie. She took the orders and collected the money each week. For this, she earned a small commission, which she was encouraged to spend back with the ‘club’. I’m sure it barely compensated for all the stress of collecting the money, keeping up with the admin and reassuring many a young wife whose ‘club money’ had been spent by a husband on beer! The arrival of the new season’s copy was quite an event. I was allowed to stay up a bit later than usual while we turned the pages, curled up alongside our mum before bedtime. We had to wash our hands and treat the pages respectfully, as one catalogue went around all the customers.
Of course, my brother and I would focus on the dolls, train sets, Meccano and Lego, but I don’t really remember getting much in the way of toys from the catalogues! I’m sure my mum only bought ‘boring’ things such as sheets and towels. I do remember her saying it was a good way of buying quality items that she normally wouldn’t have been able to afford, but because she paid weekly it meant that she could invest in the more prestigious names in linens and household materials. “Don’t buy clothes or shoes,” she’d say, “unless you’re really confident of the sizing and fit.” By the time I was a teenager, I knew the system well and I was excited when one of my pals at school brought in her mum’s catalogue. It had a fabulous boutique section with an advertising campaign headed by the glamorous Lulu. With my friend’s encouragement, I ordered about six items, including three bikinis. They were all wrong: too big, too small, or
‘I was excited when one of my schoolpals brought in her mum’s catalogue with a fabulous boutique section’
unsuitable. I hadn’t heeded my mum’s advice and each had to be sent back. My friend was not impressed.
I still liked catalogues, though, and I was thrilled to land a summer job in the glamorous offices of GUS in Manchester in the mid-Seventies. I had to type up the words of three young copywriters and we had a lot of fun as they described and labelled the products on the page. I was even offered a permanent job but, at the end of the summer, I left for university and my catalogue days could have been over.
But not quite. A few years later when I was in my first home, I knew as I was on a budget that I needed to find a local version of ‘Marjorie’ and, of course, my first purchase would be towels and bed linen – the finest quality, naturally. My mum would be proud of me!
Lulu brought glamour to the Freemans catalogue