Live from NEMOA: Feeling Groovy

Cambridge, MA–The fake vomit, handshake prank buzzers, and whoopee cushions that Bradenton, FL-based novelty gifts cataloger Johnson Smith Co. sold 30 years ago haven’t changed, but nearly everything else in the catalog industry has, Lisa Hahn, president of Glen Rock, NJ-based direct marketing public relations firm Caugherty Hahn Communications, said as she surveyed her exhibit of product offerings and cataloger reflections from 1968 to 1970. She presented the exhibit outside the “Flower Power” dinner of the New England Mail Order Association spring conference on Thursday night.

“From 1968 to 1973, the elements of today’s catalog industry were just beginning to come to the fore, such as the use of credit cards,” Hahn said, pointing out photos of a 1968 Lew Magram catalog, which she said was one of the first companies to use a toll-free phone number. On one page of the catalog, the customer is assured that he will get the same quality product through the mail that he would find shopping in one of the company’s stores. The exhibit points out that Magram was also one of the first catalogs to use outsource call centers—although in those days, outsourcing meant using operations just a few states away.

Hahn, who said she assembled the exhibit after phone calls and e-mails to industry friends, said that one cataloger told her that in the 1960s the merchandise unveiled at trade shows would typically take a year before making it into stores.

That wasn’t the only thing that took a long time, said Ted Pamperin, a partner with Summit, NJ-based catalog investment and consulting firm American Catalog Partnerships, who in 1972 had just joined Leewards catalog. Reflecting on the era, he estimated that during the ’60s and ’70s the cash on delivery (COD) form of payment accounted for 25% of all transactions; the remaining 75% were paid by check. Fulfillment usually took six to eight weeks.

The founding of United Parcel Service combined with the widespread use of toll-free numbers and credit cards in the late 1970s/early 1980s dramatically changed the nature of the business, Pamperin explained. “UPS, credit cards, and 800 numbers made [catalog purchasing] an impulse purchase,” he said.

Amid era relics strewn throughout the exhibit—which included Love’s Baby Soft Cologne Spray, Dippity-do Styling Gel, a vintage Barbie, and a Mrs. Beasley doll–was a mailbox from the now-defunct Clymer’s of Buck’s County catalog, owned by long-time NEMOA member Joan Burden Litle. Litle, currently of Lowell, MA-based credit-card processing company Litle & Co., noted in the exhibit that the cream-colored mailbox, featuring a design on its side of a red heart surrounded by twining rose vines and two bluebirds with the company name underneath, was “among the top items from the catalog from the 1960s through the 1980s.”

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