Americans have been ordering goods through the mail since Colonial times. But Aaron Montgomery Ward was the first to organize a mail-order house in the United States. In 1872, he circulated a one-page price list to members of the Grange, the largest farm organization of that time. Soon, Ward was selling to tens of thousands of customers in the Midwest.
But it was Richard Sears, a former watch salesman, who started the most successful mail-order business. In his first catalog, in 1887, Sears offered not just product guarantees and low prices, but folksy descriptions as well.
By 1900, Sears sales exceeded $10 million, topping Montgomery Ward for the first time. Ward would never beat Sears again.
Today, industry experts estimate that there are 10,000 mail-order catalogs aimed at American households. In 1998, catalogs generated $185 billion in US consumer sales. (Business-to-business catalog sales totaled $104 billion.)
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