I’ve written before about the club system used by mail order firms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These clubs would collect an equal contribution every week from every member, and every week, a different member would get to use the sum total of contributions to buy an item such as a watch, until every member had had their turn.
By 1933, Kays appear to have given this system up.
On a page near the front of their Autumn/Winter 1933 catalogue, Kays congratulate themselves that ‘Many patrons who have recently dealt with Clubs are now coming to us.’
Now that they’re not using it any more, they have some quite negative things to say about the club system. Customers who make their purchases through clubs ‘have to wait an interminable length of time for their goods’ and are in fact, according to Kays, at risk of receiving nothing at all ‘owing to other members of the Club defaulting.’
This sets clubs in a rather unfair light. The system seems to have worked well enough that some mail order firms, such as Littlewoods, kept using it into the 1950s. Nevertheless, Kays were now offering their customers a rather different method of payment.
In fact, they were offering credit. Instead of waiting their turn in a payment club, Kays customers could now receive their goods as soon as they had made an initial deposit. They then paid off the rest of what they owed following a weekly schedule.
This had begun in 1899, but there’s not much sign of it in Kays’ catalogues from the 1900s and 1910s. Perhaps the reason for this is that buying goods on credit — and therefore going into debt — could still seem rather shameful to people in the first half of the twentieth century. Kays may have preferred for their agents, who acted as mediators between the firm and its customers, to introduce the subject of payments tactfully, in personal conversation, rather than putting such sensitive matters in the hard, cold black and white of printed text.
The first catalogues I’ve found with any information about ‘terms of payment’ are from the late 1920s, where tables like the one pictured above sit at the very end of the catalogues, on their inside back pages. The page from Autumn/Winter 1933 discussed above is the first point at which I’ve found a reference to Kays’ alternative to the club system at the front of a catalogue — although, as you may have noticed, Kays don’t explicitly mention credit on this page. But the catalogue for Spring/Summer 1935 is more daring. It contains ‘an important announcement’ at the front.
Kays ‘have decided to take a bold step’. The catalogue announces new, lower terms of repayment for orders between twenty and thirty shillings. And look, there in the sunlight of the third line of the third paragraph, the word ‘credit’ stands proud and unashamed.