Mr. Eaton gives his mail-order book away free, but it brings the Big Store $55 millions a year

JOHN CLARE January 1 1947


Mr. Eaton gives his mail-order book away free, but it brings the Big Store $55 millions a year

JOHN CLARE January 1 1947


Mr. Eaton gives his mail-order book away free, but it brings the Big Store $55 millions a year


THERE IS a publisher in Toronto who will shortly put to press his latest offering for the Canadian reading public—a volume of more than 450 pages and about 7,000 illustrations, many of them in full color. The book will be printed in two languages, to a total run of about one million copies. These will cost between 80 cents and a dollar each, and not only will they be given away free to an eager public all over Canada, but they will be sent postpaid—an item which, to certain addreases such as Aklavik, may amount to twice the cost of the book itself.

The book, sometimes called the Farmer’s Bible, is the mail-order catalogue of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd.

While there are no strings on that “free by mail’’ offer, repeated four times a year (two 450-pagers and two slimmer volumes), Mr. Eaton’s book is far and away Canada’s best seller. During 1946 it produced an estimated $55 millions in business, or about 20% of the total revenue of the country’s largest retail merchandising organization with its 52 retail outlets.

Probably because much of Eaton’s sale-by-mail business originates under the friendly lamplight on fbe table of a farm kitchen, there is a feeling of Hffimacy between the customers and the firm—

something like dealing with a general store in the next town. Some of the customers would even seem to believe that Mr. Eaton fills the orders himself: they write to tell Mr. Eaton how Bobby’s eyes lit up when he got that bicycle, and sometimes they send him jars of pickles.

The present proprietor—President John David Eaton—likes this personal bond, and is always pleased to receive the gifts. But the truth of the matter is that Mr. Eaton doesn’t fill all those orders himself.

When Eaton’s mail-order business began in 1884, in response to orders inspired by a souvenir booklet passed out at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of that year, a woman assisted by two boys filled the orders. Today the eight-story Winnipeg mail-order supply house normally keeps 2,500 people filling, checking and packing orders, with another 1,800 busy at the same tasks in Toronto and 1,000 in Moncton.

The catalogue hasn’t changed much over the years. Beautiful fashion models photographed in full color have replaced the line-drawn ladies of yesteryear, but the pattern remains the same. It’s interesting reading, but as George Ade said about the dictionary, there isn’t much plot. However, there are many old friends in its crowded pages to greet returning readers.

In the underwear chapter the men still stand

around in their balbriggans examining golf clubs and rifles with easy detachment.

The Hawaiian guitar you were always going to learn to play in the long winter evenings is still there “strongly made and a real good instrument endowed with a pleasing tone.” You still get an instruction book with each guitar.

The shapely ladies in ankle-length combinations, who in another generation filled the place in small hoys’ literature now occupied by pin-up girls, display the same circumspect voluptuousness complete with gussets (please state size).

Along with each catalogue goes a set of order Manks. Filled out at parlor desks and kitchen tables they are mailed hack to the big mail-order centres. Such letters pour into the Winnipeg office by the bagfuls (post-office trucks trundle right into the building) and are funnelled into the order room assembly line, manned by more than 200 girls. A machine slits the letters open, clerks check the postal note, the order ami any special mailing instructions, and give the order a serial number ^hich stays on it until the goods are assembled, ickaged and shipped.

one order may ask for* goods from 10 ÜäÄjpnt departments, it must be broken down into »(each retaining t he common serial number) passed to the departments concerned, ^he identifying numbers, the 10 items >ught together for shipping.

If you don’t like what’s in your package, you can return it and Eaton’s will pay t he carrying charges on all purchases over $2. The company’s guarantee “Goods satisfactory or money refunded”applies both to goods bought in a store and by mail.

One customer, an Eskimo living on Herschel Island, found his parcel inadequate. He had ordered a woman’s afternoon dress displayed in the catalogue by a winsome model.

The dress arrived all right, he wrote, but demanded: “Where is the woman?”

Whether or not the Eskimo wrote in English or some arctic patois is not on record, but. many of Eaton’s customers write their orders in French and in the languages of Middle Europe and a staff of translators speedily puts these into English. Once the translators in Winnipeg were stumped by a message attached to one order. The note—“A vis ju hepijuner”— baffled the linguists until one of them stumbled on the key that broke the code. A Scandinavian customer was wishing Eaton’s a Happy New Year, phonetically.

Such painstaking efforts help to win—and hold -customers. One man wrote recently to tell Eaton’s the store had come into his life over 30 years ago and had been there ever since. He and Eaton’s first got together in a trench near St. Eloi, in 1915. A member of his family sent him a wrist watch it had an illuminated dial, he recalled—with his name and regimental number engraved on the back. The watch came from Eaton’s. He still has the timepiece, and, according to the letter, the feeling that he and the store are old friends.

IIovv It All Started

MAIL-ORDER clerksaren’t spared little Iodine’s latest, crack. “The other day I asked my small daughter what she would do if anything happened to me,” wrote a mother. “She looked up at me and said, ‘Why, we would just send to Eaton’s and get another mummy.’ ”

As in the retail stores, buying by letter is brisker today than it ever has been. Fearful of shortages, customers began their Christmas shopping as soon as they received their fall-winter catalogues and as a result some lines were sold out long before the radio quartets rang their first, jingle bell.

In addition to the satisfaction of doing a growing business, Eaton’s has the fine warm feeling that comes from the satisfaction of providing a useful service to Canadians in the country’s more remote centres, where they could not share the advantages of big store shopping if it were not for the mailorder house.

However, not all those living in the smaller centres share Eaton’s conviction that the mailorder house is a boon.

Storekeepers in small towns across Canada look

on the let ter slot of the local post office àsJt wound through which drains the spending powl '■of the community in a stream of brown order en "‘"‘Tpes. And as if this weren’t enough, Eaton’s op ¡ates mail-order offices in 188 centres where co-oper .tive clerks assist customers to fill out their orders and to which, in locations not too distant from the three mail-order headquarters, parcels are delivered daily by t ruck.

Local merchants think this money should be spent, these orders placed, in their town at their stores. There was a time when newspapers, loyal to local business, refused to accept advertising from t he mail-order houses. Efforts of the big firms to enter into the life of many communities through farm clubs, donations to fairs and similar activities, plus the steady pressure of competition, has gradually broken the boycott. Now only about 20 small papers in the West continue to hold out.

Timothy Eaton himself got his start in Canada as a village shopkeeper. Timothy Eaton ran a dry goods store at St. Marys, Ont.., after leaving his home in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, to immigrate to Canada. He was 35 when he moved to Toronto in 1869, purchased the dry goods stock of one James Jennings for $6,500, and started the T. Eaton Co.

In 1869 Toronto had 49,000 people, a narrowgauge railway linked it. to Grey and Bruce counties and women wore polonaises, paletots, tarlatan and tuckers. Coal was $8 a ton—an exorbitant price, it was agreed but eggs were 11 cents a dozen, and you could hire a maid of all work for seven to eight dollars a mont h.

Eaton’s first store was 24 by 60 feet, on the Queen and Yonge site now occupied by the Robert Simpson Co., off the fashionable shopping beat which was then along Toronto’s King Street. The first advertisement in the Globe advised buyers that the new store proposed “to keep a wellassorted stock throughout the year in all staple haberdashery and other goods.”

But. what stirred the public, according to the official Eaton history of the period, was the founder’s announcement: “We propose to sell our goods for CASH only—in selling goods, to have only one price.”

“It was a wild dream, they said,” reports the Eaton record which preserves the public reaction to the announcement.

According to the Eaton history, business in Toronto at that time wastconducted in the ethical climate of a head-hunting expedition. Merchants marked goods up liberally to provide elbowroom for brisk bargaining. Apparently Yonge Street, echoed with the shrill cries of customers and storekeepers haggling their heads off. When it was all over the sale was likely to be charged anyway. Accounts were sent

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out quarterly and even half yearly while Toronto lived (and flourished! “under the shadow of bills monstrous through long accumulation!”

Despite the headshaking at his radical departure from current business practice, Timothy Eaton’s new store prospered under its “cash only” policy. Years later Eaton’s instituted something called a “D.A.” This was an ingenious shopping device under which customers paid in advance, putting their money into a “deposit account” (at interest) against which purchases could be “charged” without necessity of cash changing hands. Finally, in 1939, Eaton’s gave in and permitted customers to charge it, first giving the “innovation” a tryout in the Halifax store before introducing it generally.

Customer Was Right

From the beginning the founder worked hard to win the confidence and good will of the buying public. It was his boast that a child, protected by the store’s guarantee, could shop without fear at Eaton’s. While the official record presents Timothy Eaton as a sort of mercantile Abe Lincoln freeing the slaves, even less partisan observers have given him a large measure of credit for establishing a new business relationship which dignified and protected the customer. Eaton’s seems to be the first large store in Canada to dedicate itself to the proposition that the customer is right.

The customer liked being right and liked Eaton’s as well. By 1896 Eaton’s was calling Eaton’s Canada’s Greatest Store, and if there were any challenges to the claim, they didn’t get into the company’s history. The company grew with the country. In 1905 the Winnipeg store was opened, bringing something new in merchandising to the West and also the one cent piece. This lowly coin had been beneath the notice of the wide-swinging westerners up to this time. Goods marked just under the dollar (98’s and 99’s to the trade) left customers with coppers in their pockets and a feeling they had got a bargain.

By the time Timothy Eaton died in 1907 his was one of the greatest names in Canadian business. The company history book declares, heroicly, “He reminds one of Cromwell smashing into the effete Parliament of Charles I; or of Cecil Rhodes founding a commonwealth among the savages.”

Timothy Eaton, the man, was a churchgoing Methodist, a tough alert storekeeper, a public-spirited man whose benefactions were many and practical, a wise and kind father. The history describes him as “a born conservative in all the simple realities of living . . . ultraradical in his interpretations of society.”

Timothy instituted a six o’clock closing at a time when most stores stayed open from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. Eaton’s continued to cut hours until today factory and store staffs work a 40-hour week, although in some of the smaller centres staffs work a longer

week than in the main stores such as Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto.

The founder had a reputation for being ruthless. One Eaton executive who knew him described this quality this way: “Timothy Eaton cut knots quickly. He was a shrewd judge of men. He was always looking for men. good men, within the company itself. One of his favorite expressions as he went around the store was ‘Get me six good men.’ He always wanted six good men. But when he found a man who didn’t measure up he felt it was wrong to keep him around when he obviously had no great future with the company.” The founder married Margaret Wilson Beattie of Woodstock, Ont., and they had three sons and two daughters. The second son, John Craig Eaton, succeeded his father as president of the company in 1907 and guided the enterprise until his death in 1922.

Sir John, who was named a Knight Bachelor in the King’s Birthday honor list of 1915, came closér to the popular idea of a merchant prince than either his father or his son. In World War 1 he placed his yacht, “Florence,” and his private wireless station at the disposal of the Government. He gave $100,000 to form and equip the Eaton Machine Gun Battery. He built the Eaton surgical wing of the Toronto General Hospital. The wing cost the donor $300.000. He gave another $50,000 for maintenance.

In 1917, at the time of the Halifax explosion, he moved quickly to load and start rolling a whole trainful of supplies from Eaton warehouses, among the first help to reach survivors in the stricken city.

Sir John, whose widow, Lady Eaton, is still living, had four sons and two daughters. The daughters are Florence Mary (Mrs. Frank MeEachren) and Evlyn Beatrice (Mrs. Russell Talbot Payton). The sons are, beginning with the eldest, Timothy, John David, Edgar and Gilbert.

Went To Cambridge

By the terms of Sir John’s will, which bequeathed $13,098,000, the 1. Eaton Co. stock was left in the hands of the executors of the estate. These trustees were Lady Eaton, J. J. Vaughan, Harry McGee, R. Y. Eaton and C. N. Mills.

In choosing his successor as president Sir John instructed the executors to select the son best fitted to assume management of the firm, the appointjnent to be made when the youngest child reached the age of 27. All of Sir John’s stock in the firm and that meant all shares except those held by directors to legalize their position was to be transferred to the new president, giving him complete control. In the 20 years following Sir John s death the president was Sir John’s cousin, R. Y Eaton, who acted as regent. The second son, John David, became president in 1942, at the age of 33.

John David Eaton, fourth Eaton to be president of the firm, received his education at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., and Cambridge University. He left, university at the end of his second year and started his

career as a merchant prince behind the counter of the men’s furnishings in the Toronto store. He was 21 at the time.

After four months in Toronto fie was moved to the Winnipeg store for two years. His entry into the company was a fillip for morale brought low by cuts in staff and pay made necessary by the depression.

John David toiled in many departments and offices in the process ot learning the business. He has been well-trained in the tradition of the firm and the responsibilities of its head man to the public and the staff. Because of his apprenticeship Eaton’s young boss basa first-handappreciation of the problems of his fellow workers.

They remember him as a large pleasant young man. They don’t see him as often as they used to, hut when they do meet him they are pleased to find he hasn’t changed.

While in Winnipeg he married a Winnipeg girl of Icelandic descent, Miss Signy Stephenson, who was a dentist s assistant, and they have four children: John Craig, nine; Fredrik, eight; Thor, four and George, one.

The young president’s day starts in his office with letters and interviews. He usually spends the afternoon going through the store with one or more of his executives, seeing for himself how things are going. He gets around: his office is panelled with bleached oak— not ivory. He travels a good deal and makes frequent trips to the Winnipeg store, where he served his early years with the company.

Mr. Eaton is unpretentious. He shuns personal publicity and is not fond of making speeches. He likes the outdoors, and his favorite holiday is to hunt in the north woods. He has his own airplane.

John David is devoting his life to his big job. Under his direction the store’s employee policy has continued the liberal trend established by his father, and store workers speak highly of the many benefits the firm provides.

Starting pay at Eaton’s Toronto stores is partly a matter of age. A 16-year-old male employee (probably a messenger) starts at $16 a week; at 17 the wage is $17 and so on up to a $25 minimum for 25-year-old “starters.” The same scale is followed for female employees except that the minimum starting wage remains at $18 even though the employee is over that age.

Quarter Century Club

Increases to boost the newcomer above any of these starting minimums follow according to ability. Commissions up pay for salesclerks, although not all salespeople are on a pay plus commission basis. Today’s average earnings of male salesclerks at Eaton’s in Toronto is $41.83 a week, and for female clerks $23.41. Sick benefits include sick pay, hospitalization and the services of company doctors and nurses. The firm’s pension plan is on a noncontributory basis.

Men are pensioned at 65 and 25 years’ service and women at 60 after the same number of years with the firm. Pensions run as high as half the pensioner’s highest wage.

A welfare department helps the

employees with loans without interest and counsel when they are in trouble. Two weeks’ holiday with pay are given to femployees who have been with the company more than two years. The Quarter Century Club, fer which 4,100 have qualified with the necessary 25 years’ service, gives new members the choice of a diamond ring, watch or silver tray, plus an extra six weeks’ holiday with pay. After 30 years they get an added week’s holiday yearly, and after 40 years two weeks extra.

1' actory workers get one week’s holiday with pay and receive the same benefits as store employees.

Big Store Getting Bigger

Some 5,600 Eaton employees joined the forces during the war. When an employee signed up Eaton’s undertook to make up the difference between his service pay and the pay (in the case ot a single man, three quarters of the pay) he had been receiving before leaving his job. Many another firm did the same, gradually reducing the “differential” payment as buck privates were promoted to NCO and commissioned ranks. Eaton’s, however, ignored all promotions for the war’s first four years, went right on paying Colonel Junes as if he were still a private. However, deductions were made for all promotions subsequent to September, 1943.

Many girls who had previously been clerks returned to Eaton’s when their husbands went overseas, to help fill the gaps in the staff. Where possible, returning veterans have been given better jobs than those they had when they enlisted.

With one exception, Eaton’s has no union contracts, but the firm says it has no objection to employees joining unions. Some of them, like the printers working on the catalogue, are union members.

“Our policy is to tiy to give our employees more in the way of benefits than they could get from union contracts,” says an official of thecompany.

Organized labor takes the same view of Eaton’s as it has of any other large body of unorganized workers. Unions have tried to buck the company in the needle trades without success.

How about the future of Eaton’s?

1 he big store’s destiny is bound up in the economic future of this country with which it has grown. And it is still growing.

From every part of the Eaton empire have come pleas for more space, but the company has no intention of adding to its plant until demands for new housing have been met. To do otherwise would be poor public relations. But Eaton’s doas have plans which will give the mercantile giant room to move and grow.

As for the ownership of the company, the last and still valid word came from Sir John 25 years ago. In 1921 a rumor (a hardy perennial) that Eaton’s was to be sold to a group of financiers w-as getting more than usual currency, and Sir John was moved to take public notice in a speech.

Said he: “There isn’t enough money in the world to buy my father’s name.” (This Is the second of two articles on the 1’. Eaton Co., Ltd.) ★