The early 1930s were a time of worldwide economic depression. In the UK, unemployment rose, profits fell, and the government made severe cuts in public spending.
I picked up the Kays catalogue for Spring/Summer 1931 expecting to see a pretty grim picture. What I found was something rather more complicated.
The inside front page pictured above begins with good news: ‘REDUCED PRICES’. It also promises that the catalogue contains ‘a lot of new lines’ and has become prettier to look at, with ‘a largely increased number of goods shown in colours’.
There are grim-sounding references to ‘bad trade’ and ‘troublesome times’. But the state of trade has apparently brought some benefits: ‘there has been a considerable reduction in the cost of raw materials’, and, Kays announce, they are passing on the saving to their customers (or ‘friends’).
An inside front page of the Autumn/Winter catalogue for the same year says that Kays were ‘OVERWHELMED with business’ during the Easter holiday season. It also urges customers to take advantage of current low prices and ‘BUY NOW’.
‘It is hardly possible,’ say Kays, ‘that, for many years, goods can be so cheap as they are at the present moment. They ‘specially draw attention to our WATCH SECTION, where we have managed to introduce several very good but much cheaper lines.’
Unfortunately for the would-be watch buyer, the watch section itself contains a revised price list added in November, presumably after the ‘present moment’ of the inside front page.
The government had abandoned the gold standard, which linked the value of the pound to a fixed amount of gold. The value of the pound was falling, and the amount in pounds that it cost to buy gold and silver — used in many of Kays’ watches — was rising. ‘We are actually losing money on every Watch we sell,’ the catalogue claims, in urgent typeface. And so prices on watches were going back up again.
Perhaps all prices would soon increase. The Spring/Summer 1932 Kays catalogue includes a warning that ‘All prices in this Catalogue are subject to ALTERATION WITHOUT NOTICE.’
Kays explain that if prices do rise, the blame will lie with ‘The uncertainty of World markets and the introduction of Tariffs’. The tariffs in question are probably import duties, which the British government began charging on a variety of foreign goods in February 1932, and increased from 10% to 20% later that year.
And yet, somehow, in their Autumn/Winter 1933 catalogue, Kays announce that ‘Despite the imposition of Tariffs on various imported goods, prices of the majority of articles are lower than they have ever been before.‘
They warn, however, that ‘this can hardly last much longer’.
NOW THEREFORE IS THE TIME TO BUY, and we strongly advise all our friends to buy as much as they possibly can at this present moment while prices are as low as they are–THESE TIMES MAY NEVER RECUR.
I don’t have good enough information to hand to know how volatile prices really were at this point, or to what extent Kays may have been taking advantage of the situation to try to sell more goods. But it seems that this was a very interesting time to be a mail-order business — or a customer.