With JC Penney’s recent announcement that they will no longer publish a big book (their large general merchandise catalog), it effectively ends the lifecycle of a business that ushered in modern day retailing in the United States as we know it.
Back in the late 19th Century, Montgomery Ward began the mail order business in Chicago, IL (a major rail and water hub perfectly positioned to serve the established East Coast markets and the emerging West). Along with Sears, Roebuck and Spiegel, mail order boomed through the first half of the 20th Century, bringing goods to customers in remote areas and effectively ushering in modern consumerism in the United States.
Post WWII, as Americans began to cluster in closer to the cities (the development of the suburb) and with brick and mortar retailing greatly expanding (the simultaneous development of the modern day shopping mall), mail order began its gradual, inexorable path to extinction. This was particularly true for the big books of Sears and Montgomery Ward that also relied on their stores or catalog stores for product pick up and return (and we think multi-channel retailing is a new invention…). But, for millions of Americans, the arrival of the big catalog provided an incredible window into the all of the products that could be available.
By the 80’s, the general merchandise catalogers reached further obsolescence, as specialty catalogs and specialty retailers proved to be more nimble and cost effective than the cumbersome books. One by one, the big books fell, and often their companies with it—Montgomery Ward and Spiegel both disappeared and Sears shut down catalog operations.
Ironically, JC Penney who was late to the catalog game (they entered through acquisition in the 60’s) also survived the longest. Catalog remained a multi-billion business for them in the late 1990’s. Most importantly, they hung on long enough to effectively bridge the gap into the modern day era of e-commerce. As the Internet began to boom in the late 90’s, JC Penney had the infrastructure and name to become an instantly formidable player in e-commerce as other companies struggled to quickly ramp up capability.
Unquestionable, as catalog retailing changed the retail landscape in the early 20th Century, e-commerce is having the same effect on the 21st century.
Even though this obit could have been written fifteen years ago, we’re going to miss those big books and that link to a form of retailing that brings back a flood of nostalgia.
In our most recent book, Greentailing and Other Revolutions in Retailing, we discuss this very theme. As mail order fades, e-commerce takes it place. Has the modern day department store been rendered irrelevant by specialty and discount stores? Will Amazon make book superstores obsolete? And most importantly, what’s around the corner that will one day threaten Amazon?