mail order

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mail order

1. an order for merchandise sent by post
a. a system of buying and selling merchandise through the post
b. (as modifier): a mail-order firm

Mail Order


a form of nonstore retailing in which orders are received and delivered by mail.

Mail order originated in 1887, when the largest American mail-order houses, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, were founded; at first, these houses serviced primarily a rural market. Mail order developed in prerevolutionary Russia in the early 20th century, and the largest mail-order businesses were the mail-order departments of the Miur and Meriliz (Moscow), Aleksandr (St. Petersburg), and Petrokokki (Odessa) department stores.

In the USSR, mail order is a complement to the network of stores in small cities and rural settlements where it is economically inexpedient to have stores with full assortments of goods. In 1973 orders by mail accounted for about 30 percent of all retail sales of spare parts for motorcycles, motor scooters, and bicycles; more than 5 percent of retail book sales; and about 3 percent of retail sales of phonograph records. Sales of consumer commodities in stores amount to no more than 25 percent of turnover, whereas mail orders account for 84 percent.

The types of goods retailed through mail order are determined largely by the extent to which particular goods are produced and to which rational norms of consumption and supply have been achieved; in the latter case, this applies primarily to durable goods. Mail order also supplies items in occasional and rare demand having many varieties that are not interchangeable; such items include radio parts, photographic and sports goods, and stationery.

More than 50 percent of mail-order items are handled by specialized and general centers of Posyltorg (Mail-order Trade Office), part of the Ministry of Trade of the RSFSR and the chief organization dealing with mail-order in the USSR. Mail-order operations are also carried out by the mail-order departments of the Gostinyi Dvor department store (Leningrad) and the Central Department Store of the Servicemen’s Trade Enterprise (Moscow), as well as by the enterprises Kniga—Pochtoi (Books by Mail) and Semena—Pochtoi (Seeds by Mail). The Cooperative Mail Order Trade Office, an enterprise of the Central Union of Consumers’ Societies of the USSR, carries on small-scale wholesale trade with the stores of the consumers’ cooperatives, supplying them with goods by mail.

Mail-order trade is developing in other socialist countries as well. In the German Democratic Republic, for example, it is carried out by Versandhaus in Leipzig.

In capitalist countries, the mail-order business is considered to be a supplementary form of selling goods and is carried out by major department stores as well as by mail-order houses. In the developed capitalist countries it is handled by highly mechanized enterprises stocking a wide range of goods; production is controlled by electronic computers. In 1973 orders by mail in retail trade totaled 4 percent in the USA and Great Britain, 5 percent in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1.2 percent in France, 0.5 percent in Italy, and 1 percent in Belgium and the Netherlands. The largest mail-order houses in Western Europe are Necker-mann, Quelle, and Otto Versand (Federal Republic of Germany) and La Redoute and Galeries Lafayette (France). The largest in the USA are Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.


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