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How people ordered stuff in the dark ages (when we grew up)

In the days before Amazon, before supply chain analytics, before FedEx, buying specialty items took a very long time. In this retrospective article, David Gewirtz compares how it was with the IT technologies we use now to streamline access to products.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
I've been constantly complaining about the Amazon Echo I ordered on January 13 that didn't show up until May 15, but that's how long it used to be for just about everything.

Let's say you're in the mood for something a bit unique and special, like a certain tea brew or coffee bean. Today, you visit Amazon and place your order.

Worst case, you do a search for "boutique teas" or "rich coffee beans" and tons of online suppliers with web sites pop right up. A quick visit to Adagio or Peets will result in a box of delicious wonder arriving at your door. For the record, I'm not a tea fan. It doesn't make sense to me why you'd drink tea when there's, you know, coffee.

But it wasn't always like that. Once upon a time, if you lived outside a major city and had any sort of special interest (nice tea or coffee, model trains, knitting, whatever), you were limited to what was available in the local stores.

Back then, there weren't even the big specialty stores. There weren't Walmarts or Barnes & Noble stores with 50,000 to 250,000 square feet. The only big stores were supermarkets and, sometimes, a Sears or a Macy's.

So how did people order stuff back in the day? How did they even find what to order? Let's use hobbies as an example, although the same applied to industry and trade supplies.

If you were involved in a hobby, you knew the starting points. I loved model trains as a kid, but could never get the trains to stay on the tracks. I never had the patience to carefully align the track and the idea of variable speed never made any sense to me when you could drive them at maximum speed. Net-net, I wasn't exactly a successful model railroader.

But I did know which magazines to read. There was Model Railroader at the core. Railroad Model Craftsman was another one. Hobby shops where I grew up in New Jersey had some model railroading supplies, but if you really wanted to see a selection, you'd go into downtown New York City, where there were three or four huge hobby stores.

In the back of Model Railroader (and, in fact, in the back of most print magazines of that era) were ads for catalogs. This is where the gold could be found. These were suppliers of all sorts of interesting and wonderful specialty items.

Your first step was that you would have to find a magazine with the good stuff. If there wasn't a retailer nearby that had a magazine rack, or the local B. Dalton didn't have magazines in your interest area (B. Daltons were small book stores in most malls, with very small magazine racks), you'd either have to find a friend in the field or take a field trip to the big city and find either one of the big news stands or hobby stores.

Those big city magazine stands were the Google of the time. You couldn't do this sort of "search" from your couch. You'd have to make it into the city, find the big stand, and then dig through for the specialty magazine that might have something like 5,000 or 10,000 subscribers (more of you will read this article than most of those magazines had yearly subscribers).

Getting the magazine wasn't the end of the game, it was the beginning. If you had the money (when you're a kid, a magazine subscription is big money), you'd fill in a subscription form and send it in, usually with a check or even cash . Six or eight weeks (weeks!) later, the magazine would start to show up in your mailbox.

If you wanted to order from one of the specialty catalogs, you'd dig through the back of the magazine (lots of magazines made a good percentage of their income from these back-of-book classified ads) and you'd have to call or even send a letter requesting the catalog.

That meant the folks on the catalog side had to have people taking calls and -- if you can believe it -- opening letters, typing in the customer information, and then processing the order in some way. Most catalog vendors didn't have local area networks, but they did often have certain data entry folks with nodes to mainframes, minicomputers, or timeshare accounts to some of the bigger DP (data processing) suppliers.

Once again, some number of weeks would go by and you'd eventually get your catalog. Now you could start to look for what you wanted. I remember excitedly digging through the Walthers catalog to find really neat train gear, tagging the pages, and begging my parents for some of the items. If I was very lucky, one or two items (a model train station, for example) might show up for a birthday.

I wasn't a very good model builder either. I didn't take the time to carefully trim the plastic parts from the trees or scribe the wooden parts from their surrounding stanchions. Instead, I used glue. I just globbed as much glue as possible to fill all the cracks (which was often quite a lot of glue). Needless to say, my model train station looked less like a train station than something out of a Tim Burton movie.

But the point here is if you wanted to order something from the catalog, you either called an 800-number (we paid for "long distance" calls back then) or mailed in your check after filling out a paper form. Then another six to eight weeks would go by as you waited for the product to arrive. Let's also remember that FedEx didn't exist back then. There was no overnight delivery.

From beginning to end, here's what you could expect in terms of elapsed time and steps:

  • Trip to the big city to find a magazine stand or store with specialty magazines. We'll call this a week, because it was rare you could take a trip into the city on the spur of the moment.
  • Finding some interesting catalog vendors in the back of the magazine and sending off catalog requests or calling to order a catalog (six to eight weeks -- let's call it seven).
  • Add another six to eight weeks for the item you wanted to arrive. Again, let's call it seven.

Adding it all up, you could routinely wait fifteen or sixteen weeks (that's about four months -- an entire season) from the desire to get something special like a fancy tea or a model train station to when it arrived.

The Internet, combined with advanced supply chain management technology changed all that. With the exception of a few products that are in short supply, what you order tonight can show up tomorrow. No big city trip. No hand-written forms to fill out. No stamps to buy. Just one click, and it's in your hot little hands.

We sometimes bitch when our favorite website is down, or because we now all have too much crap in our homes and offices, but the difference of our highly integrated world and that of the sixties, seventies, and eighties is profound.

Of course, that's not even good enough. Now we're looking at drone delivery. The day Starbucks can drone me a coffee or Dunkin' Donuts can sky drop me a chocolate glazed in ten minutes after tapping an app on my smartphone, well then I'll know I'm really living in the future.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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