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Littlewoods Catalogue Home Shopping


There have been dramatic changes in almost every aspect of family life over the past three generations but, 60 years ago, when the social revolution was restlessly stirring, conditions were ripe for change.

"An analysis of Littlewoods' mail order catalogues over that entire period shows just how significant those changes have been", said social historian Denis Frost. "Today's average housewife and mother spends only three hours a day cooking and doing the housework.

"That would have been unthinkable for her counterpart in the early 1930s, who was no more than a slave to the housework. Without a doubt, the advent of home shopping has made an impressive contribution to the social revolution for women".


Already flourishing in America through Sears Roebuck, mail order shopping became an important sector of the retail trade in Britain with the entry into the market of Littlewoods in 1932.

The Littlewoods Catalogue home shopping revolution began on a golf course.

John Moores, the millionaire founder of Littlewoods Pools, had taken the afternoon off to join his brother, Cecil, on their favourite links. Moores later recalled the occasion, set in the context of an untypical boredom with his business life.

"It gave me no happiness merely to toss money around... but there didn't seem to be anything to worry about any more. Well, I just had to find something..."

Moores' mind went back to his days as a Post Office telegraph clerk at Waterville Cable Station, a lonely outpost in Country Kerry on the south-west coast of Ireland. A bachelor of 22, he was appointed "mess president" when he led a protest about the quality of the local food.

Moores reorganized the catering, then created "The Waterville Supply Company", ordering necessities like household linen, shoes and socks, toilet articles, sports goods and even library books direct from Dublin and England.

The company flourished and provided him with the 1,000 he later needed to launch his pools empire.

On the golf course, he said to his brother: 'Cecil, I'm going back into the mail order business, starting from scratch with an office, a typist and a little warehouse. I'll see if I can make another million from nothing!'

"It was not enough to be a millionaire at the age of 35. I felt I had to prove to myself that it was more than a mere fluke. Besides, one cannot retire at 35..."


Littlewoods Mail Order Stores Limited started trading from rooms over a shop in Whitechapel, Liverpool, with a share capital of 20,000. Their brand of home shopping took root in prepared and fertile ground. It emphasised (and still does) the striking difference between the way the business is operated here, compared with North America and the rest of Europe.

Abroad, the vast majority of sales are made from catalogues issued direct to customers. In Britain, catalogues are held by literally millions of "agents", who show them to relatives, friends and neighbours, collect orders and payments and receive a commission of at least ten per cent. The reasons for this unorthodox form of trading are mainly historical.

In the 1920s, particularly in the North of England, the great majority of people were desperately poor. The average national wage was a mere 175 a year for a minimum 48-hour week.


It was a constant struggle to stretch a man's pay packet to feed his family, let alone clothe them adequately and leave something over for holidays and the few labour-saving devices that had started to come on to the market. To buy clothing, people turned to the "club men" -representatives of firms that issued "credit cheques".

These cheques, usually valued at 1, were accepted by certain local clothing and footwear shops instead of cash. The issuing firm rarely charged its customers less than a shilling (5p) in the pound borrowed, and this was expected to be repaid weekly until the debt was discharged. It was one of the earliest forms of credit for the common people, and by no means the(' only one in the field.

The clubs flourished alongside other practitioners like the "Scotch Draper" or the "Tallyman" hustlers who sold goods on the doorstep, financing from their own pockets short periods of credit, usually at extortionate rates of interest.

Companies like Littlewoods realized that these credit salesmen often landed their customers in far worse debt -but also answered a need, which the large credit institutions ignored.

Introdution continued