Being an immigrant, I wasn't as familiar with US economic history as I was with that of other countries and regions. Therefore, I found this article, comparing Amazon.com with a much earlier vendor, very interesting.
The history of US consumerism starts with the Sears Roebuck mail order catalog. Yes, the very same Sears that is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy today. But 125 years ago the company was every bit the disruptive innovator. A brief summary of how that happened:
Conclusion: Sears was actually a more ambitious business model than Amazon when it started. On day one, it was already selling a wide array of products – not just books. In terms of consumer offerings, Amazon now is right where Sears was in 1920. Yes, there are more SKUs on the website, but in terms of what people needed in 1920 the Sears catalog is remarkably complete.
- Mail order became viable in the late 1800s because of the expansion of the US rail system, post office regulations that allowed for catalog mailers at 1 cent/pound, and Rural Free Delivery.
- The first Sears catalog was published in 1894 with the slogan “The Cheapest Supply House on Earth”.
- Its target audience was rural America, which in 1900 was 60% of the US population. This was a deeply underserved community, often with just a thinly stocked general store to supply all their needs.
- The 1903 catalog added the commitment of “Your money back if you are not satisfied”, reassuring customers that buying a product sight-unseen was a viable way to shop.
- The scope of the Sears offering in 1920 was every bit as vast as Amazon’s is today. The company offered everything from men’s/women’s/children’s clothing to furniture, appliances, jewelry, home entertainment, toys, and even entire houses and farm buildings.
- Sear’s merchandising method was exactly the same as what you see on Amazon’s website. Every item for sale had a picture, description, and price. The catalog is organized by the type of product offered for sale, something akin to “If you like this item, you might also like this…”
There's more at the link.
Obviously, the speed of delivery was far slower a century ago than it is today, but that's still a remarkable parallel in business history. It's particularly interesting because there was no national road network in those days. Interstate highways wouldn't come along until after World War II, and the pre-interstate main roads were often in very poor condition. When the US Army sent a convoy across American in 1919, it took 56 days to travel between Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
In the course of its journey, the convoy broke and repaired wooden bridges (14 in Wyoming), and "practically" all roadways were unpaved from Illinois through Nevada. The convoy travelled up to 32 mph (51 km/h), and the schedule was for 18 mph (29 km/h): to average 15 mph (24 km/h). The actual average for the 3,250 mi (5,230 km) covered in 573.5 hours was 5.65 mph (9.09 km/h) over the 56 travel days for an average of 10.24 hours per travel day ... 4 days had average speeds over 9 mph.
Again, more at the link.
No free second-day shipping over that transport network, that's for sure!