Glancing Backward, Looking Ahead

During the past 150 years or so, mail order has evolved from a general-merchandise-driven business to the upscale, niche-dominated industry of the 1980s to the multichannel mania of recent years. Along the way, catalogers have embraced numerous creative, marketing, and technological innovations; they’ve also managed to overcome such hurdles as steady postal rate hikes, mailbox glut, and the challenge/opportunity that is the Internet. But while the basic tenants of catalog marketing have changed little over the years, what it takes to be successful in this business differs considerably from 1856, when the first U.S. catalog still mailing today — the Orvis fishing and hunting title — hit the mail. Catalogers that aim to survive in an increasingly challenging and competitive field must constantly assess the business climate of the present and embrace the technology of the future. But it’s also important to remember the leaders of the past and the roads we’ve already been down. The innovators of yesteryear helped pave the way for the catalog titans of today — and of tomorrow.