Changing face of the catalogue

Vicky Pepys looks at the life and times of one of Britain's great shopping institutions as it celebrates a very special birthday.

Vicky Pepys looks at the life and times of one of Britain's great shopping institutions as it celebrates a very special birthday.

It's Freemans' 100th birthday.

But the firm's centenary birthday bash, held last Friday, wasn't a typical affair with a telegram from the Queen and a cake, but a stylish party just off London's Tottenham Court Road with a few hundred guests and a few hundred mini-bottles of Champagne.

It had taken the PR team headed by Noella Dixon months to prepare. "We've been gearing up to be a hundred for over a year now," laughs Noella. "We designed a modern day BoHo boudoir showing a multitude of products, home furnishings and fashion in one of the rooms, we got moveable screens to show a montage of our hundred years of history and we managed to get a Twiggy mannequin."

Freemans is a thriving mail order and online shopping service owned, since 1999, by the Otto Versand group. Cited in a recent Mintel report as being the market leader in Europe, Versand has not only developed online shopping as a sister application, but also identified the need to develop specialist catalogues and specifically target different sectors.

Alarmingly, the Mintel report also reveals that "British consumers are choosing the internet over traditional catalogues for the first time ever."

Most mail order catalogue activities centre on a big book you browse through at your leisure. Freemans is no exception, with its spring/summer 2005 edition running to a whopping 1,154 pages.

Yet analysts are declaring that the `Big Book' is dying.

But what they're forgetting is that not everyone has internet access, some people are technophobes and that some like to spend an evening slapping post-it note reminders on the pages before deciding the next day if they still like their choices.

Freemans began in 1905 in Clapham, London, in two rooms of a terraced house. Four partners put in £100 each to create Freemans & Co with their celebrated made-to-measure suit for 30 shillings (£1.50).

Most of the goods on offer were sold on credit, a common practice then when people on low incomes formed clubs to save a shilling a week to buy clothes. So, from a simple credit system and a black and white illustrated catalogue, a mail order business was born.

By 1932, Freeman's was the largest mail order business in the UK, and had 30,000 agents working on commission.

Guests at Freemans' centenary party might have wondered why evidence of these early years were a little thin on the ground. It's because the headquarters were bombed in 1940, destroying much of the business and sadly killing 23 members of staff.

But it regrouped quickly and adapted to the war years by accepting coupon payment for clothing.

By the 1950s, buying on credit suited the consumer boom, and by 1963 Freemans had become a public company.

The firm also recognised the need to keep ahead technologically, and by 1964 its first computer was installed; in 1979 a telephone ordering service and in 1984 a futuristic phone system.

I remember the launch of that telephone system. I was working as a junior in the London office of Lynne Franks PR, which had Freemans as a client. My job was to photocopy, cut and glue the captions to the back of the photographic prints that made up the press packs for the launch of a new season's catalogue.

Freemans was pretty groovy. Even in those days, they understood celebrity face endorsement. They'd started with Twiggy and graduated to Lulu (twice) and they've gone on to Lorraine Chase, Wendy Craig, Denise van Outen, Yasmin le Bon, Sharron Davies and more curiously, Des Lynam and Keith Chegwin!

If my memory serves me well, the picture of the telephone system had all the charisma of a gnat, but it was phenomenal technology for the time.

Because of technological advances, mail order is now done online or by phone as a personal shopper and, in Freemans' case, through one of the million agents (serving three million customers) who are graded from silver to gold, platinum and elite, depending on what business they do.

To give you some idea, an elite agent needs to generate £40,000 plus of business. No wonder there are only 25 elite agents across the country.

"Elite agents are really running a business and will have incentives along the way. I'm a gold verging on a platinum," explains Vivienne Kempster, 46, from Cullercoats, North Tyneside, who has been an agent for more than 10 years.

Vivienne is a registered childminder and manages to do her `agenting' within the irregular hours she works. She has up to ten regular customers, including herself.

She is one of Freemans' biggest fans. "I'm the biggest culprit. With the work that I do I found I just didn't have time to get to the shops, particularly for things like Christmas shopping. I furnished my entire home when I got married thorough the Freemans catalogue.

"You can't fault the quality at all," she adds, revealing that her daughter wanted to take the wardrobes with her when she recently left home.

"The removal men couldn't believe how solid they were as pieces of furniture," Vivienne says.

`Agent' is a strange term to use, because as soon as you order a catalogue for yourself you become an agent.

Being `promoted' to silver, gold and so on is the recognition that you are taking `customers' on as the company's representative.

"Freemans makes it so easy for you," says Vivienne. "There's no paperwork involved, just trips to the bank, and I've become great friends with Jenny, who delivers all the goods, over the years."

Go back a few years and this was what was enticing about being an agent. A chance to earn commission, but also to make friends.

Vivienne is complimentary about the fashion selection, with names such as Morgan, Warehouse, Roxy, Firetrap and O'Neill vying for space amongst the own brand selection. Interestingly, `designer' names are starting to creep into the homes areas too.

Noella Dixon reports that Richard Randall from ITV's 60 Minute Makeover home programme will be giving style tips for autumn.

Might Vivienne be tempted to completely re-do her house?

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