The fact that e-commerce is a solidified concept is telling enough of its growth in the past decade. As a result, the mail-order industry has also had to adapt with the times. It has evolved into something completely different than it was when the concept was first created in the 18th century.
History of mail-order companies
It's believed that the first mail-order catalog was made by Benjamin Franklin as he looked to sell science and academic books to anyone willing to make a cash payment, according to Forbes. But the idea of having customers send in cash and a checklist of things they want didn't become popular until the 19th century when Aaron Montgomery Ward produced the first Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog.
Ward's catalog wasn't much by today's standards when it started as a single sheet of paper offering more than 160 items. By 1884, it was 240 pages. Just 20 years later, the catalog had a mailing list of 3 million.
The mail-order trend began to grow as companies like Sears and Bloomingdale's adopted the practice of mailing catalogs. With the use of major brand names, celebrity appearances and a growing subscription pool, catalogs remained a popular method of shopping until the late 20th century. Around this time, companies began seeing stricter regulations on mail orders, as well as increasing prices of composing and mailing the catalogs.
The impact of the Internet
Like many other industries, the evolution of the Internet has completely transformed and revitalized the mail-order industry. In previous years, subscribers would have to wait for a catalog to come in the mail, be sent back to the company and processed then have their items sent to them. That could've taken anywhere between 4 to 6 weeks from start to finish. Thanks in part to the Internet, customers are now able to access a company's entire digital inventory.
Many business use this new model to do away with catalog production costs completely and digitize their entire operation. With the use of debit and credit cards and payment processing solutions, it is even easier for customers to make purchases and have them sent directly to their homes.
Other businesses are now taking the mail-order concept a step further. Companies such as Rocksbox, Dollar Shave Club, Bark Box and many more are using a model where customers subscribe to their lists and have standard packages of items shipped to them on a regular basis for as long as they're subscribed. TrunkClub is a service that allows users to meet with a stylist who puts together a trunk of clothes for them to wear that are then shipped. The customer only pays for the clothes they keep and has 10 days to try them on before returning them.
According to the Charlotte Observer, there are even companies that send plant seeds to subscribers through a mail-order system. It appears that pretty much anything, even ingredients for home cooked meals, can be purchased through innovative mail-order services. All that's needed is a debit or credit card, home address and a subscription.
As expected, all of the recent innovations in the mail-order industry have also led to a significant amount of growth. According to IBSWorld, the mail order industry has obtained a revenue of approximately $79 billion in the past five years. This is probably due to the fact that mail-orders are using debit and credit card purchases more than ever, which is a great convenience to the customer.