Mail-order buying leads to shop-local campaigns

“Shop At Home” has been the message of just about every merchant who ever opened a shop door to customers almost anywhere in the world. Sure, they all needed the custom of as many people as any particular store could offer. But that local shopping does more than satisfy a need, a wish, a dream of all the customers of any particular store and a smiling welcome in most places.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment — not every community could supply all the needs of every single customer. There were many things those early merchants just couldn’t afford to have in stock and hope against hope that someone would come along and buy. Money was too hard to come by to spend in that manner. So the settlers would go where they were sure they could obtain one or more of those hard-to-find items.

Traveling was no joke in those days. The lucky ones proudly drove horses and they could, with little difficulty, shop in several communities in a day. Most of the people, however, drove from place to place in ox carts which were really humping to make five miles in several hours.

Some people from around here did get to St. Cloud, then a struggling metropolis which had been organized when three smaller villages got together to form that city we know today. There were advantages and disadvantages in shopping in a larger community. Wider selections were the things that appealed to many of those early shoppers, and they, in many instances, were forced to spend several days doing their shopping, and finding shelter at night and in bad weather.

Still others would walk from what is now Kandiyohi County to what is now Minneapolis (St. Anthony village then). There was no public transportation and very few trails so they walked those hundred or so miles to the growing city, did their shopping, loaded it all on their backs or shoulders and headed for home.

That meant a several-day walk through uncharted, undeveloped lands which were as wild as they had been for centuries.

When they got this far in the late 1870s the railroads were a real boon to the people living here at that time. They brought the world to the Kandiyohi lakes, and they made mail order shopping a reality. After all, one of America’s mail-order giants went into the business at a tiny depot only about 40 miles from here. That’s when R. W. Sears, the Redwood Falls depot agent, bought a shipment of watches and started selling them by telegraph all along the railroad line.

When Sears Roebuck and Monkey Wards (as the latter had come to be affectionately known) began distributing catalogs, merchants recognized the threat those giants were to their businesses and started a strong campaign that is still going on today — “KEEP LOCAL BUSINESS LOCAL.”

One of the ads they ran which appeared in many publications was really a story about the difference between doing business locally or with strangers 100 or more miles away.

It took the form of a dialog:

A farmer came in to a local hardware store shopping for a new pitchfork. He found one that looked just like the one in the “Wish Book” as catalogs were often called. First of all, the pitch fork in the catalog was 50 cents cheaper than the one offered by the local store. The merchant showed the customer how the shipping charges would actually make the fork in the catalog cost at least a dollar more than the one he was holding in his hand.

The catalog fork was guaranteed, just as the one in the store was and the merchant reminded his customer that sending a broken fork could involve a lengthy correspondence before a settlement could be reached; then compared that to an instant settlement at the local store.

The farmer was convinced — doing business locally was the thing to do. He brought out his wallet, paid the merchant for the pitch fork and started for the door with it, until the merchant stopped him and retrieved the fork saying, “Sorry, if you’d bought this by mail, you’d have to wait until next Thursday when the next train comes in.”

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