Remote Shopping Before the Internet

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Companies like Alibaba and Amazon have come to be integral to many peoples lives in an age where everything can be accomplished online. When one asks, “where can I buy this?”, I almost always reply “Probably on Amazon”. The efficiency with which our packages are delivered and the sheer array of goods that can be purchased is staggering, but how did people accomplish this when the internet didn’t exist?
               Imagine you are dreaming of a state-of-the-art Superman bed or a hot new Kitchenaid tool but there are no stores around that are selling it. Maybe you do not own a car, or the product simply is not sold in stores. How would you be able to give your child that toy they absolutely need, or finally achieve your dream of owning a 100-in-one pocketknife? Without access to websites and the ease of searching for what you need, how does the remote shopping experience get shaped for people?

               You see an ad in the newspaper, and it is for a new shopping service called GetItFast. There is a number you can call, and they say that they will deliver a catalog full of goods that you can look through and order, with shipping right to your door! Perhaps Christmas is coming up and you have been wanting to get your significant other the perfect gift, or you have run out of places to look for new ideas. You call the number and in a week it shows up right at your door.

               The catalog is hundreds of pages long with everything you could possibly want: kitchen supplies, clothing, toys, games, furniture, and even cars. You wonder how a single company could possibly sell all of this variety of goods. All you have ever seen around your town and neighborhood have been department stores, grocery stores, and maybe a few specialty shops. As you flip through the pages you wonder if everything is priced fairly, but you have nothing to compare most of the items to. You might have seen a couple on the television, but for the most part you must trust the seller to give you a good price. You also see some sales on certain sections which must only be for this issue of the catalog as the front says that all prices are for the month of November. Every month you will have to call the number on the front of the catalog to request an updated issue with current listings.

               You have gone through the whole catalog steep with wonder and picked out what you would like to buy. Now, you must call in to place the order and figure out exactly how much the total will cost. The person on the other side of the line checks your address to calculate the shipping and tax costs, which takes a few minutes to look up in a master book. This makes the order quite expensive, but for Christmas it seems acceptable. If you were wealthier you might even order from the catalog more often for mundane things just for the ease of access. The person on the line directs you to an address to send cash or a check to pay for the order, after which they will confirm your payment and ship the products straight to your door.

               A few weeks pass by, and the packages finally arrive just in time for Christmas. However, when you open one of the packages, it seems that they mixed up the color of the toy that your son wanted! You look back at the catalog to see how to return or exchange it and they list another number to call. The employee tells you that to return the item, you must pay for the shipping to send it back to a warehouse. That particular toy came from another country, which makes the shipping far too much to be worth it, and you simply accept the mistake.

               Before the internet, remote shopping would have taken far longer, but this did not mean that it was not spectacular to look at all the things you could buy without leaving the comfort of your home. Remote shopping represented wonder, access, and ease for those who had the means to purchase from catalogs. Being able to buy things from your home probably was not used as often as it is today, with Amazon Prime same-day delivery creating the ability to never leave your home again for simple things such as laundry detergent. Comparing the shopping experience to today would also illustrate the troubles of returning and price checking without the immediate exchange between catalog and customer and the need of assistance over the phone. However, it did create an ease of shopping for more select, rare, or unavailable items not usually seen in the typical store that you would otherwise need to travel long distances to acquire.

               Companies could also present a very large number of products to customers by keeping centralized warehouses that would ship all across the country and even to other countries, without the need to organize and sell them in a storefront or show space. This probably made looking through a catalog quite the magical experience; seeing the variety of what you could get delivered right to your door would make you feel like quite the king.

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