“Mail order” advertising is the name given to that particular kind of advertising which, in distinction from general publicity, is intended to bring orders for a commodity direct without the use of any middlemen or selling agencies. A broad application of mail order advertising, of course, might easily include all kinds of advertising, for it is a fact that all advertising where the firm name and address are used is certain to bring some inquiries by mail. All advertising, therefore, might be characterized as mail order advertising except that in which the name of the manufacturer or dealer does not appear.
Modern usage, however, confines the application of the term to advertising which seeks orders for a product by mail. No department of practical or commercial publicity has attained such remarkable development as this. Great fortunes represented by costly buildings and big mercantile establishments have been built up in this country out of mail order advertising, and all this in spite of the fact that this country is many years behind the European nations in the matter of providing facilities for the cheap transportation of parcels. The one thing needed to make mail order advertising in this country the greatest business on the globe is the establishment by the government of a par-eels post.
There are two kinds of mail order houses : first, those which sell goods only by mail direct to the consumer; second, those which sell goods by mail direct but whose goods are also carried by general stores.
Advertising for the first of these must be real “salesmanship-on-paper.” Mail order advertising of the second class aims to bring inquiries which are usually referred to some dealer who handles the goods in the town from which the inquiry came. The inquiry is not only referred to the local dealer, but the local dealer himself is advised by letter of the fact that the inquiry has been received and referred to him. The local dealer then makes it his business to also communicate with the person who sent in the inquiry and in this way by a systematic, well organized follow-up system the man who sent the inquiry is gradually converted into a customer for the goods. This system of “drumming up” business for the local dealer or retailer is the one usually followed by nearly all advertisers who are not purely and simply mail order houses.
It is the first division of mail order advertising which engages our attention in this chapter. The field for this kind of advertising in this country consists of eighty million people. It is the kind of advertising, however, that appeals most strongly to people in smaller cities and towns who do not enjoy the shopping opportunities that are presented by the larger cities. While the ordinary dealer may be showing a commodity to one customer in his store the mail order house may he showing the same commodity through printed literature to fifty million people. There are mail order houses which book thirty to forty thousand orders for a wide range of commodities in sixty days.
How many salesmen would it take to get an equal number of orders for the same commodities in the same length of time, and what would be the total expense for their salaries, hotel bills, railroad fares and other expenses?
It must also be. borne in mind that nearly all goods sold outside of the mail order houses are sold on a credit system. They are sold on thirty to sixty days’ time. In conducting a mercantile business of this class allowance must be made for a certain percentage of uncollectable bills. The bad debts constitute an appreciable loss that must be reckoned with in any well organized system of merchandizing. In a mail order business there are no bad debts for the reason that there is no credit system. Everything is sold for cash and the cash must accompany the order except in a few instances where goods are sent on approval. The general practice is, however, to have the money in advance so that the business of all mail order houses may be said to rest upon a cash-in-advance basis, with no danger of loss or expense in collection.
The history of the great mail order houses shows that it is possible to convert almost any form of merchandizing into a mail order business. Experience has shown that almost anything can be sold by mail, from toilet soap to an automobile. It is estimated, indeed, that in the year 1905 two million dollars’ worth of auto-mobiles were sold to country buyers through mail order advertising.
It is unnecessary to mention the very obvious fact that the sale of two million dollars’ worth of automobiles by mail involved the use of much ex-pensive publicity literature outside of the advertising which called forth the inquiries from possible purchasers; and this leads to a consideration of the essential features of successful mail order advertising. These may be classified as follows :
First, the mail order advertisement,
Second, booklets, leaflets or catalogs,
Third, the follow-up system of correspondence.
Opinions of advertising experts differ as to the relative importance of these features of mail order advertising. My own opinion is that there is a very little difference in relative value considered from the standpoint of actual “salesmanship-on-paper.” If there is any difference in relative “pulling power” as between these essential features of mail order advertising, I should say that the illustrated booklet or catalog is the most important in that it is the connecting link between the mail order advertisement and the possible purchaser. It contains the argument or “talk” which, if properly constructed, carries conviction and finally results in sales.
At the same time, it is plainly obvious to even a novice in mail order advertising that unless the mail order advertisement is so constructed that it will bring inquiries, the most attractive and most expensive booklet ever written or printed is useless, for there is no opportunity for using it. The first essential, therefore, is an advertisement so constructed that it will arouse the interest and curiosity of the reader to such an extent that he will send in a request for descriptive matter pertaining to the commodity advertised.
Writing mail order advertising is an art in itself. A man might be capable of writing the most erudite essay upon some interesting subject or a fascinating story in the most racy and captivating style and at the same time be utterly lacking in the ability to write a good mail order advertisement. It is not of much consequence if the ordinary newspaper editorial misses its point and fails to convince the reader; but the mail order advertisement must be written to get business. It must be a “puller” in small space, for mail order advertising is usually done in small space and if properly phrased and constructed gets as many inquiries as can be elicited through large space, in which respect it differs radically from the so-called general publicity advertising.
Every line counts in a mail order advertisement, hence the sentences must be clear and terse. Certain redundancies and waste of space may be permissible in general publicity, but in mail order advertising every word must be pregnant with vital interest as the object is to possess the reader’s mind with a new want or to move him with the idea that an old want may be quickly and cheaply gratified. The sentences must have individuality of style and must be different enough from the general run of advertisements to command immediate attention and interest. As the object is to stimulate the curiosity of the reader, it is a good plan in most mail order advertising to leave out the price of the commodity and, for this same reason, the advertisement should include a picture of the commodity that is offered for sale. Unless the advertisement is to occupy four hundred or more lines the headline or caption of the advertisement should tell what the article is, and much will depend upon the wording of this headline or introductory sentence in the matter of its ability to attract the attention of readers.