Having tea with my uncle on a Thursday evening, we recalled how Thursday was my grandmother’s shopping day. Each day through the week she would add items to her shopping list and on Thursday mornings she would phone the small Co-op store in Long Sutton. It had never occurred to me how she had shopped for things not stocked at the Co-op. “Do you remember the Great Universal Stores catalogue?” asked my uncle, I did when he reminded me. It was a huge catalogue from which you could order almost anything.
Many people of a certain age will remember mail order catalogues. Enterprising individuals would keep the catalogues, take the orders and collect the money; their reward would have been a small commission. The fact that their dealings would normally have been with family, friends and neighbours presumably ensured that defaults on payments were not common, but there must have been serious strains on friendships when payments fell into arrears.
The catalogues rarely had anything that might not have been bought in stores in a good-sized town and their prices probably were probably higher than the prices that might have been paid in the high street, the difference was that they allowed payments over months, twenty weeks, or forty weeks, or more. In a high street store the only items that did not require an immediate payment were the sort of thing that you bought on hire purchase, televisions, washing machines and the like, and hire purchase came with interest payments.
Hire purchase came with the threat of repossession if you did not keep up the payment of the instalments so, naturally, you could not have bought clothes, or many of the other things in the catalogues, on HP. The catalogues were successors to the door-to-door salesmen with their suitcases of clothes and household goods for which the repayments were collected week by week.
If you analysed the customers of the travelling salesmen and compared them with those who bought large items and paid instalments on hire purchase, or those who chose things from the mail order catalogues, the common thread was that even when goods were advertised at 0% interest, purchasers often paid dearly through significantly higher prices. The choice of paying for things over many weeks or months came at a high premium.
Perhaps it was just a matter of convenience that my grandmother used the GUS catalogue over decades, it is hard to imagine how much it cost her all through those years.