A mail-order house is an enormously complex machine but to the folks back home it's just one of the family
MARGARES K. ZIEMANNovember11942
"DEAR MAIL ORDER—"
MARGARES K. ZIEMAN
A mail-order house is an enormously complex machine but to the folks back home it's just one of the family
I’M NOT a doctor or a minister or the editor of a “lovelorn” column. But I read letters, literally hundreds of letters, from all sorts of places and all kinds of people. They write from farm homes on the prairie, from fire rangers’ cabins in the bush, from mining towns in northern Canada, Copper Cliff, Yellow Knife, Rouyn, Malartic—all the strange names which spell romance to the average city dweller.
If I were a reporter with my eye to every keyhole in the land, I could not learn so much of the intimate thoughts of so many people. Yet I’m only a clerk in the office of a large mail-order house.
“It must be interesting,” outsiders say, “to see a tremendous organization like that at work. How do they manage to keep all those customers’ orders straight?” But working in it, the most striking feature is the feeling of close intimacy with the customer. Stranger yet is the fact that the customers don’t consider the mail-order house an impersonal business organization, but a friend to whom they confide the most personal problems.
Around Christmas time this feeling of warm friendliness has a special sparkle. Almost all the letters end with sincere thanks for looking after their Christmas shopping so efficiently.
“This is for Santa,” one letter confides. “Be
sure to send the skates care of Steve D--. Steve’s
our nearest neighbor. We’ll pick them up there, for Bobby mustn’t know what Santa’s bringing him.
Both Mr. C--and myself want to wish you a
real happy Christmas, and thank you for all you’ve done for us.”
And that other letter from a mine worker in northern Quebec, who was buying a fur coat for his mother. He asked to have it sent direct to her. “If it’s not too much trouble,” he wrote, “Please write on a card . . . ‘With love—from Son Nick.’ ” You can be sure the card was enclosed—not just an impersonal typewritten slip, but a gay Christmas card, handwritten. And some mother in a little Gaspé village opened that box, lifted out the warm fur coat and knew that “Son Nick” had not forgotten her.
Marriage, childbirth, sickness, death, all the important events of the customers’ lives are shared with us. There are times when stark tragedy breaks through some routine enquiry about merchandise . “It’s just a year since my little girl was drowned . . . But I guess it don’t matter to you. And certainly I’ll not soon forget the exchange request which read: “Please may I return
this baby’s blanket ... I won’t need it now.” There’s humor, too. For instance, this somewhat garrulous character reference for Bill, the section man, somewhere in the North. “Bill isn’t a bad fellow,” his referee wrote chattily. “Sometimes he takes a ‘bit too much.’ Bill thinks he’s a sport, I guess . . . but he works steady, and now that he’s getting married he’ll be okay. The girl’s a good steady sort, a hard worker, and wants to get ahead. Bill’s been lonely, I think. He’ll be okay, now.” One woman, writing to recommend a young man, who planned to open an account, remarked, “He’s marrying my daughter, so he’s okay.” All antecedents previously investigated.
But many of these character references are monuments to human integrity and decency, not glorified in any sense, but just as others see them.
“Tom J--doesn’t earn a great deal. His work
isn’t steady, for it’s seasonal, but he does well for his family and meets his obligations. Anything Tom signs for, you can be sure of getting.”
The Boot Brigade
THERE are customers whom the adjuster gets to know over a long period of years. “Here’s
another letter from Mrs. C--” I heard one
adjuster say. “Honest, I think she’s lonely!” Another customer was an inveterate “exchanger.” I’m inclined to think it was just a habit, or it may be that the constant coming and going of parcels lent variety to an otherwise humdrum existence. At any rate, it was almost impossible to figure out whether she owed the firm money, or the other way about.
Customers’ letters spread out a panorama of the seasons. Spring trade comes later through the mail order. It coincides with the real spring in the country, not the arbitrary one set in the cities by Easter and the Fashion Parade. But it’s amazing how quickly many women in places which are not even marked on the map can sense style trends. They know just what they want, and they ask for
it. Open-toed footwear, and saddle shoes, with the younger set, caught on just as fast through the catalogue as they did in the crowded metropolitan centres.
Of course, there are times when the customer is led astray by the appearance of the slender, graceful models who wear the clothes in the catalogue. “This coat doesn’t look so good on me as I think it should,” one woman, who was returning a coat, wrote reprovingly. The coat’s fault she implied.
Vacations, hunting trips, the start of school are all reflected in the orders for complete new outfits, camping equipment, outboard motors and guns. But there is one thing in universal and everconstant demand. “Boots . . . boots . . .boots” might be the theme song of families with small children. And with the French-Canadian people, where sometimes as many as twelve income-tax exemptions sit around the family dinner table, the demand is so constant that even the order clerk who knows no French can readily translate soulier.
Replying to French customers, particularly those in the small towns of Quebec, calls for considerable tact on the part of mail-order adjusters. Requests for Christmas gifts and wedding presents are quite frequent. Many a large order from French Canada closes with a request for some particular article (perhaps a baby’s bonnet), which the customer takes for granted, will be included to show the firm’s appreciation for the order. Evidently this method of retaining the goodwill and trade of the customer must be fairly common practice with small-town merchants in Quebec. Perhaps it’s a throwback to early trading days, when merchandise was piied high, one article at a time, until the equivalent of the furs, or lumber or farm produce which the habitant had to trade was reached—then an additional article was generously “thrown in” by the merchant to seal the bargain.
Certainly a gift for the bride, in anticipation of her future patronage, must have general acceptance, with French-Canadian firms. The frankness of French brides in stating their preferences proves the point. The adjusters tactfully point out that mailorder prices are shaved so close for the customers’ advantage, that it is impossible to grant special favors.
Such requests prove clearly that the customers have no conception of the complex machine which is set in motion with the arrival each day of thousands of letters from all parts of the country. More than a
Continued on page 37
Continued Jr om page 22
thousand post-offices may be represented each day in the flow of orders passing through the mail-order’s vast, eleven-story plant.
A long line of girls are kept busy sorting the letters which arrive from the post office in large bags at scheduled intervals. These sorters start work half an hour ahead of the other employees, so that the mail will be opened, and the orders ready for the buyers when they arrive. A machine slices off the ends of the envelopes, fifty at a time. Although the contents are first shaken down to the opposite end, safe from possible mutilation, occasionally money or some important identification mark is clipped off. Then the girls must search through the mound of fine paper slivers to discover the missing part.
As you read the customers’ letters, you realize that the money enclosed often represents sacrifice and toil for weeks and months. “The hens haven’t been laying so good,” the writer confides, “so I couldn’t send for this dress before ...” “The cow has ‘come in’ again, so I’ll be able to count on my cream cheque regular.”
That colloquialism of farm people to describe a cow “freshening” puzzled the adjuster, a city girl. I couldn’t resist telling her how I discovered what it meant. “Oh, we can’t milk Floss,” I was told when 1 enquired why one particular
Pass Along Your Maclean's to the Boys in Uniform
Letters from troops, sailors and fliers tell how much they enjoy seeing Maclean’s. If when finished with your copy you take it to the Active Service Magazine Depot in your city, it will be sent to the boys in uniform here and overseas. If there is no depot near you write to the depot at:
122 King St. West, Toronto
Or give your old copies to a salvage organization. Paper is needed in the war effort. Do not burn or destroy it.
cow hadn’t been brought into the barn, “she hasn’t come in yet.” “Well, what’s the matter with you?”
I asked indignantly. “Can’t you make her come in?”
“The Farmers’ Bible”
TODAY as for years past the mailorder catalogue continues to play an intimate part in the everyday life of thousands of homes throughout the land. That long-standing nickname of joking affection “Farmers’ Bible” truly expresses with uncanny accuracy the authoritative position the book occupies in the social economy of rural and small-town life across the Dominion. When you realize that seventy-five per cent of the catalogues are addressed to customers in communities having a population of 1,000 or less, it is easier to understand the part the catalogue plays in helping to establish a common standard of living across Canada; by stimulating wants and satisfying needs, by pioneering the cause of modern conveniences and introducing new trends and styles.
Its arrival is an event in nearly a million homes. If mailings to a given territory are for any reason reduced, requests pour in by thousands. I recall one request in which the customer apologized, “I know we’ve had one already, but the kids got hold of it and cut it up for paper dolls. I always give them the old one when the new one arrives, but this time they made a mistake.”
The fascination which the catalogue has for children scarcely surpasses the interest it holds for their elders. Shopping in it, even the wishful “window-shopping” which precedes the actual purchase, has been given all the thrill of personal selection, largely because color magic makes catalogue merchandise just as attractive and almost as real as articles bought over the counter.
That striking cover design—to them it’s the entrance to a large department store. And between the covers are all the various merchandise departments, for the mail order offers variety of merchandise and values that compare favorably with the largest city stores. What’s more, not everybody in town knows what you’re buying, and just what you paid for it. And that’s something,
you’ll realize, if you’ve ever lived ! in a small town, where everybody I knows one another’s business.
Instead, the mail-order adjuster gets to know all these things. An order for a diamond ring—“Please rush”—is the equivalent of an engraved announcement. Often the order for the wedding ring is unobtrusively included with a lengthy list, items of home furnishings and linen. But bride’s trousseaus are unmistakable. Then, after not too long an interval, there will be a large and complete order for various surgical supplies, yards and yards of flannelette and additional bedding. With one such request came an urgent note. “Please rush this order, as it must arrive in time to make the scows which go ‘down-river’ before the freeze-up.” The dramatic story of a child expected in some far-off outpost—told in twenty-two words.
WHEN the mail-order customer sends in the article number and catalogue description, he has actually done all the real shopping necessary, and the role of the mail-order buying department is largely a clerical one. “Buyers” sit at typewriters ! all day long, forty or fifty girls each with a catalogue handy for reference. Their job is simply to type a separate bill for each of the items on the customer’s order. They feed the belt along which the orders move to the “scheduling” machine.
This is the pace setter for the whole mail-order process. The machine automatically stamps each one i of the customer’s bills with an order number and a shipping time which is a stern dead line. An order that goes to the buying department at 8.30 a.m. (no matter how many different items it may contain) must be filled in the many different departments, parcelled, carefully packed for shipping, weighed, stamped and started on its way by truck in time for the eleven-thirty mail. Just three hours from receipt to “delivery.”
Mix-ups do occur and that’s where the adjuster enters the picture. Consider the customer who ordered a bicycle complete with accessories— light, carrier, pump, reflector, bell, chain and lock. For some reason the bicycle could not be sent immedi-
ately; but there is a rule that all articles on the customer’s order which are available must be supplied at once, so the accessories arrived—but no bicycle. Wrote the customer with heavy sarcasm, “Thanks for the parts. Now if I just had the bicycle, they’d come in very handy !”
If he could follow the process of filling orders he’d understand how such a thing sometimes can happen. Individual bills for the various articles on a single order are whisked through pneumatic tubes to a series of warehouselike departments, where each article ordered is lifted from well-stocked shelves. After preliminary parcelling, the separate articles are placed on a moving canvas belt connecting the various departments, and finally they plunge down a chute to a platformlike table in a central assembly floor. Here are sorters, armed with long-handled wooden rakes, who swiftly tumble parcels into flat wicker hampers. Into one group of hampers go all parcels for, say, the eleven-thirty mail, and all parcels for a particular customer are then sorted into a single bin.
If any article ordered isn’t available for immediate mailing, a note of explanation is enclosed with the rest of the order—or should be. In the case of the bicycle somebody slipped up, forgot to tuck in the explanatory note—one of those errors that indicate by contrast just how efficiently the monster mail-order machine usually operates.
But such slips do serve to illustrate that no process can be wholly dependent upon machinelike efficiency without losing that personal contact which the mail order is wise to value so highly. And so the adjusting department’s function is not wholly to correct errors and adjust complaints, but to assure that a personal interest is taken in every customer. Big business calls it “public relations”—but it’s really just neighborliness. The sort of neighborliness that prompted a letter received during the Christmas rush:
“I know you must be working awfully hard just now, filling all our orders. So I’m sending an extra quarter. Now be sure to go out and buy yourself a sandwich and a cup of coffee. It’ll do you good !”
There’s hope yet for a machineruled, war-torn world!
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.