WOMEN JOIN THE WAR EFFORT
"CLUBS" FOR ALL"
The first postal shopping firms grew from a combination of these ideas. They supplied a simple catalogue -a printed list of clothes and household goods, without illustrations -to anyone' wishing to form a club. John Moores operated on the system of grouping people together in "shilling clubs" for making weekly bulk orders from the Littlewoods catalogue. Cannily, he raided his pools mailing list for names to recruit as organisers. Their task was to form the clubs from the ranks of relatives and friends.
With twenty members overwhelmingly women - each taking one or more shares in the club, the organiser collected enough for £1-£2 worth of goods each week. Members then drew
lots to decide the order in which they would receive their goods and it was this feature that gave rise to the name of "turns clubs".
Organisers sent their cash to Littlewoods, and each of the 20 members got her goods before she had finished paying for them except the one with last turn on the list. The organiser was rewarded with a discount off her own purchases, paid by Littlewoods. The cost of postage , carriage and packing was normally included in the price of the goods.
So began the modern home shopping industry -and its growth was phenomenal. But the linchpin has always been and will continue to be -the catalogue.
The first Littlewoods catalogue was published in May, 1932. It had only 168 pages -contrasted with the bumper 1992 catalogue at 1068 pages. Nonetheless, the full range of catalogues constitutes a remarkable historical record.
Take the humble washing-day iron: the 1932 catalogue offered a flat iron, a nickel-plated gas iron and, a newcomer to the shops, an electric steam iron, all weighing between 4lbs and 5 1/2Ibs, and each costing the princely sum of ten shillings (50p). One bargain even threw in a free ironing board.
In fact, ten shillings proved an amazingly popular price. This was, after all, the era of burgeoning mass production, with shops like Woolworth's claiming to sell nothing costing more than sixpence, and a two-course meal (roast beef and veg, plus dessert ) available at a Lyons teashop for just a shilling.
Moreover, there were free gifts in abundance: the Daily Express gave a pair of silk stockings to 10,000 lucky readers, and between them the Daily Mail and the News Chronicle sent out more than ;300,000 free sets of the works of Charles Dickens. Trains ran on time too, and quickly: in 1932 the Flying Scotsman sped from London to Edinburgh in 7hrs 27 minutes.
But if the catalogue' had been born in an era of doubt and confusion, the succeeding ten years were only a shade more comfortable for the people of Britain. Across the Channel the mid 30s was the age of the dictator... Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany. The United Kingdom moved out of recession, wages steadied a little (though jobs were still in short
supply), and life began to be, if not sweet, then at least a bit more fun for the ordinary people, that is; the rich had never stopped having fun.
Commercial air flights from London to most European cities coincided with the launch of the 72,000-ton ocean liner, Queen Mary. More than 15 million Britons took an annual holiday and in 1937, an almost unbelievable total of 425 special excursion trains ran on August Bank Holiday to Blackpool alone!
The National Trust was created, the zip fastener invented, the Crystal Palace burned to the ground, and the unemployed marched from Jarrow to London.
The cinema attracted an astonishing 30 million patrons every week. The Marx Brothers and Shirley Temple were at the height of their formidable powers. In England, the most popular authors were Agatha Christie and three men whose first names never appeared on a title page: P G Wodehouse, J B Priestly and A J Cronin.
For women, nothing much changed except the fashions... Perhaps the most welcome bargain for Littlewoods
club customers in those days was the "Surprise Bedding Bale" of 1932 and beyond. It is worth detailing the contents:
pair of soft, fleecy blankets; pair of sheets; two pillows; two pillow cases; bolster case; four towels; wadded quilt;
Alhambra quilt; Jasper bedspread; sideboard cover; four-piece dressing table set; six teacloths; six dusters;
tablecloth; and two cushions: all 24 articles for just £2, delivered to the door.
The catalogues of the period flourished a Motto and a Guarantee couched in the same baroque language. Said the Motto: "We hoist our Flag in the Port of Supply, and right away we sail to the Ports of Demand -the Homes of the People. We intend to help the homely folk of this country help them to obtain some of the profits made by manufacturing and trading... to save money on things they must have.
"This Catalogue is our Ship... staffed by an All-British crew... You won't find sleepy, old-fashioned goods carried in the LITTLEWOODS ship. Only the newest of the new goods -honest, British-made merchandise."
The "No Quibble -Money Returned" Guarantee promised, in Gothic script, that "every article described in this Catalogue is fairly and accurately described. If a piece of furniture is described as 'oak throughout', it is all oak. If a garment is described as 'wool' it is pure wool and all wool".
In 1935, with the mail order system proving both efficient and hugely successful, John Moores sent a personal message to his club organisers. It ran: Undoubtedly, today, I regard it as the plain duty of all with money to spend, to put that money in to
active circulation, and so to help in trade recovery. Our duty is to create employment for others... by spending. To those with courage to do so, I believe the rewards were never so great. Markets and prices are phenomenally low. Money wisely spent today is well spent."
By this time, as well as the "shilling clubs", there were "two shilling" and "three shilling" versions, raising £2 and £3 a week for 10 or 20 weeks, all operating on the same system of "turns", whereby each organiser conducted a draw to choose a member to receive her goods after the first weekly payment (perhaps of only a shilling), another after the second week -and so on, leaving just one unlucky lady as last "turn" who had to pay for all her purchases before receiving them.
But then, she stood first in line for the next draw... The 1932 Littlewoods home shopping catalogue contents list alone is a snapshot of the age. It runs from Ax minster Rugs to Writing Desks, and optimistically perhaps, considering the clientele, includes such items as" Afternoon Frocks, Housemaid's", dinner waggons and "Dress, Matron's Art, Silk".
Organisers were evidently expected to have rich relations. They were also required to be precise in their orders. Said a 1935 instruction: "Organisers should always help their club members with any necessary measurements to ensure that the goods are correctly ordered".
They're warned to be on the lookout for special points: "Bedsteads -wooden and iron; mattresses, wool and wire: state size and kind. Electric irons and bowl fire -supplied in three voltages. Chenille curtains, table covers, quilts: state colour required".
In 1932, John Moores rented his Liverpool rooms for the mail order operation for £3 a week, and staffed them with five girls from the Pools business. He sent out 20,000 letters to selected Pools clients, received 245 replies, and formed 17 clubs. With takings of £35 for the first week he was well in profit.
Moores paid close attention to every aspect of the business. He recalls: "We examined everything carefully. I remember sitting and stripping off the leather sole of a shoe with my penknife, to make sure it actually did have triple soles, as advertised".
He confessed he was "having the time of my life". Within four months they moved headquarters five times, seeking bigger premises as the business began to grow. By the end of that year, turnover had topped £100,000.
THE MASSES' MILLIONS
Moores celebrated by sailing for America to see the Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Chicago) operations at first hand. By the end of 1934, annual turnover was £400,000. Early in 1936, the business hit the £4m mark... and John Moores had made his mail order million.
It irked him that he had to pay other wholesalers and retailers for his catalogue goods, so Moores resolved to get into the chain store business himself. The first Littlewoods store was opened in Blackpool in 1937, and by 1939 there were 24 scattered throughout the country, each with its own restaurant.
In what Winston Churchill later called the "wilderness years", life in Britain proceeded at a stately pace, blissfully unaware of the fury to come. Royalty was as popular as ever: 1935 saw the Silver Jubilee of King George V, and the nation
Ramsay MacDonald resigned as Prime Minister to make way for Stanley Baldwin, who went to the country that year and gained a massive majority (432 seats to 154) for the National Government in what would be the last General Election for ten years. Early the next year, the King died and was succeeded, briefly, by King Edward VIII.