Mail order

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This is a mini-rant, a short essay refuting a common misconception among users of an Internet forum. If you think this essay is FUD, feel free to explain why on the essay's talk page.

Mail order is a method of shopping for goods where instead of picking up goods at a local store, you place an order and have goods shipped to you.

Mail order comprises three steps:

  1. Catalog: Store sends a list of products, descriptions, and photos to customer.
  2. Ordering: Customer sends a list of products to be sent and a payment to the store.
  3. Shipping: Store sends the product to the customer.


At first, mail order involved both the order and the goods going through the postal service. In the 1950s, Ron Popeil pioneered "as seen on TV", or embedding pieces of the catalog in television commercials; Billy Mays was famous for this in the 2000s. In the late twentieth century, as telephones, credit cards, and especially debit cards became more common in the United States, ordering over the phone became another option. The 1990s brought the World Wide Web and "online shopping", or catalog and ordering through Web applications.


Mail order has a few advantages over brick-and-mortar shopping:

  • Larger selection of products.
  • Can refer to a catalog at the same time as a web site listing products that are compatible with your obscure product.
  • Online stores have no checkout lines.
  • Often lower prices for the goods due to lower overhead.
  • Shop without leaving home, unless of course you've already left home to buy something else at the same store or a nearby store.


Mail order has one major drawback: No showroom means no chance to test the ergonomics of a product in person, unless you're ordering the same model that a friend owns and that you have already tried. This happens especially for laptops or phones, where the look and feel of the built-in screen and keyboard are important.[1] In November 2012, I bought a Bluetooth keyboard for my Nexus 7 tablet. When I discovered that its space bar was so short that my right thumb didn't reach it, I had to make an extra bus trip to the post office and pay to ship it back. It can also be important for sizing of clothes. Disappointment when buying something sight unseen leads to a far larger return rate for mail order than for brick-and-mortar purchases,[2] and stores might be tempted to cut their losses by deducting a 15 percent restocking fee from the credit issued for the return of a product which is unsuitable yet not "defective". Being able to try a product before buying it can lead to customers becoming loyal to a store.[1]

One might consider trying a product in one store, which has to maintain a retail storefront, and then buy from someone else that doesn't have that overhead cost.[3] But showrooming is one of the things that gets customers branded "demon customers"[4] because the store is acting as a free showroom for an online seller. Nor does it work for products not sold in any store near you. On May 15, 2010, I walked into a Best Buy store, a T-Mobile store, and a RadioShack store in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In each, I asked to try a Nokia N900 phone, and in each, I was disappointed.

It has other drawbacks as well:

  • Shipping takes time and costs money.
  • Return shipping of defective merchandise costs money.
  • Unless you buy from one store often, or a store uses a payment processor like PayPal that saves your address, you have to enter your billing and shipping address every time you buy something.
  • Paying for an order requires a checking account, credit card, or debit card. This makes it difficult for a child with a technophobic parent to buy toys online: "If they don't take cash, then they aren't a serious business, and you don't need their product."


  1. QuasiSteve's comment
  2. Stef W. Kight. "Shoppers more likely to return items bought online than in store". Axios, 2017-11-03. Accessed 2017-11-03. Via Slashdot.
  3. Slashdot comment by h4rr4r
  4. Meg Marco. LEAKS: Best Buy's Internal Customer Profiling Document. The Consumerist, 2008-03-18. Accessed 2011-01-02.

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