Mail-order business is an industry involving the sale of products by mail. Mail-order companies, often called mail-order houses, have traditionally advertised by mailing leaflets, letters, or catalogs to customers. But today, many also advertise through magazines, newspapers, radio, television, telephone, and the Internet. Many firms also encourage customers to place orders by telephone or on the Internet. Some firms invite customers to sales offices to select merchandise from catalogs or from samples on display. Because of the expanded scope of the traditional mail-order business, it is often referred to as the direct-marketing business.
The first mail-order firms in the United States were retail merchants who took orders by mail for certain types of goods. In 1872, Montgomery Ward and Company of Chicago became the first mail-order business to sell general merchandise. By the early 1900’s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. of the United States had become the world’s largest mail-order business. At first, the U.S. mail-order industry mainly served customers who lived on farms or in small towns. But after World War I (1914-1918), improved roads and the increased use of cars made it easier for rural people to shop in larger towns and cities. As a result, the mail-order industry began to decline. But the larger mail-order firms opened retail stores in urban areas.
After World War II ended in 1945, the mail-order business began to grow again despite a decreasing rural population. The industry recognized the importance of rapidly growing city and suburban markets, and it developed new methods of reaching customers there. These methods included telephone-order services, separate catalog-sales offices in towns and suburbs, and increased circulation of catalogs in city areas. Today, companies use Internet websites to reach potential customers worldwide.