The Last Catalogue, Shopping by Mail and Conclusion

The Last Catalogue

In 1913, the Hudson's Bay Company catalogue lost over $61 000 in six months. It ceased publication that July. Burbidge felt that it wasn't worthwhile unless the company was prepared to invest significantly to compete head-to-head with Eaton's and Simpson's. He was also concerned that the catalogue was competing with their own stores. Hudson's Bay Company stores were already competing with the Eaton's and Simpson's catalogues; Burbidge didn't want them to compete with their own catalogues. In 1916, there was strong competition with twelve mail-order houses in Winnipeg alone.

Shopping by Mail

The HBC provided a personal shopping service, through which rural customers made requests directly to the head of what was called the mail-order department. Burbidge also tried to appeal to the "country trade," within an 80- to 120-kilometre [50- to 75-mile] radius of each store. He tried various strategies, including paying transportation costs through credit on purchases. Individual stores provided seasonal leaflets and price lists of groceries, liquor, and tobacco. Some stores issued monthly bulletins that included price lists for staples such as groceries, seeds, and cleansers, and a very limited selection of clothing, furnishings, and household textiles, just enough to let customers know the range of goods that could be purchased through the personal shopper.

Calgary was considered to have the most potential as the centre for Western retailing in the late 1910s and 1920s. However, London shareholders naively thought that the retail business would always be a sideline to the fur trade and were reluctant to invest heavily in the development of the retail stores until the 1920s. When management of the company shifted to Canada, the potential for growth in the retail business began to be understood.

Beginning in 1931, the Fur Trade Depot periodically published a 200-page catalogue for use by its posts, listing typical merchandise carried by the depot. The order desk catalogue provided customers with access to a much broader range of goods than could be displayed within a small post. You could even buy a Peterborough canoe through the depot. Stores continued to provide shopping by mail, and later by telephone, for customers who found it inconvenient to get to the stores.

Conclusion

Although never a major force in the mail-order business, the Hudson's Bay Company's retail empire expanded throughout the 20th century. In later years, acquisitions and mergers intertwined its history with those of other former mail-order companies such as Morgan's (1960), Simpson's (1978), and Woodward's (1993).
by Catherine C. Cole

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