Mail Order Retailing in Britain: A Business and Social History

Richard Coopey*, Sean O'Connell, Dilwyn Porter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportBook

22 Citations (Scopus)


Since its inception in the late 19th century, Britain's mail order industry both exploited and generated social networks in building its businesses. The common foundation of the sector was the agency system; sales were made through catalogues held by agents, ordinary people in families, neighbourhoods, pubs, clubs, and workplaces. Through this agency system, mail order firms in Britain were able to tap social networks both to build a customer base and also obtain vital information on creditworthiness. This history of the British mail order industry combines business and social history to explain fully the features and workings of this industry. It shows how British general mail order industry firms such as Kay and Co., Empire Stores, Littlewoods, and Grattan grew from a range of businesses as diverse as watch sales or football pools. A range of business innovations and strategies were developed throughout the 20th century, including technological development and labour process rationalization. Indeed, the sector was in the vanguard of many aspects of change from supply chain logistics to computerization. The social and gender profile of the home shopper also changed markedly as the industry developed. These changes are charted - from the male-dominated origins of the industry to the growing influence of women both within the firm and, more importantly - as the centre of the mail order market. The book also draws parallels and contrasts with the much more widely studied mail order industry of the United States. The final section of the book examines the rise of internet shopping and the new challenges and opportunities it provided for the mail order industry.

Original languageEnglish
PublisherOxford University Press/UNESCO
Number of pages258
ISBN (Electronic)9780191716638
ISBN (Print)9780198296508
Publication statusPublished - 01 Sep 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Agency system
  • Catalogues
  • Creditworthiness
  • Customer base
  • Empire stores
  • Grattan
  • Kay and Co
  • Littlewoods
  • Logistics
  • Social networks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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