O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street

Oh please let it be for me.

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street

I wish, I wish I knew what it could be.

I got a box of maple sugar on my birthday.

In March I got a gray mackinaw.

And once I got some grapefruit from Tampa

Montgom'ry Ward send me a bathtub and a cross-cut saw . . .

-The Wells Fargo Wagon by Meredith Willson (c) 1957, 1959 Frank Music Corp and Rinimer Corp. All rights reserved. International Secured

Use by Permission.

THE PUMPKIN-shaped leather ice bucket that Roger Horchow once bought for his posh catalog never did turn into a coach, and the catalog king admits that he must have been "swept away by the glamour" of the Bavarian prince who talked him into buying 100 of the things.

At $150 each, nothing about them swept anybody else away either, and the last of them finally went only recently for $35.

Most things don't work out that way for Horchow. This year, for example, in the current holiday book, he offered several one-of-a kind pieces of jewelry. The cheapest was a dress stud in mother-of-pearl set in enameled gold at $825 and the most expensive, an oynx shell pin and earring with pearl and diamond accents at $3,950. Every piece was snapped up within the first thousand order blanks returned to the company after the book was mailed.

About a hundred years ago, mail order catalogs were created to give those living in rural areas a chance to do a bit of big-city shopping.

Today the mail order catalog folks do a business of more than $15 billion a year. It's simply an easy way to shop.

Colonial days saw the first mail order shopping, but in 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward put together the first known "catalog" of items designed to be sold through the mails. His list of 163 different articles included a woman's diamond watch at $8. Lancaster gingham at $1 for 10 yards, Kentucky bourbon at $1.70 per gallon, and a package deal of a fur hat, two pairs of wool socks and a gold chain for $2.50.

Ward had been a traveling salesman when he set up the mail order business in a livery stable in Chicago with $2,400 capital and soon brought his brother-in-law George R. Thorne into the company.

His timing was perfect. Farmers and others living in regions isolated from stores were becoming fed up with the traveling salesman who brought only a few items at what the consumers considered very high prices. In fact, the American Grange was vocal in expressing resentment toward the excessive profits in this method of distribution.

It wasn't only the fairer prices and the larger assortments that appealed to mail order customers. But by the time Sears and Roebuck catalogs appeared in 1888 (billing themselves as "the cheapest supply house on earth"), guarantees of satisfaction and offers to exchange unsatisfactory merchandise were strong selling points. Early advertising copy from mail order companies capitalized on the antagonism of farmers towards the peddlers but also promoted all the pluses for mail order sales.

The mail order business continued to grow until after World War I, when increased use of the automobile, far better roads and the start of branch stores in small metropolitan areas started to cut in on its popularity.

But by the end of World War II, when manufacturers began to see mail sales as an outlet for specialized items, the business began to rev up again. The increased sales in outdoor clothing from L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer and others, the promotion of collection and commemorative items through companies like the Franklin Mint, and the growth of luxury catalogs like Horchow's, have given this business a monumental boost, particularly in the past five years.

Today there are more than 10,000 mail order companies, according to Celia Wallace of the Direct Mail Marketing Ass'n., enjoying a sales boom far beyond traditional retail outlets.

Today it is possible to sell anything from one-of-a-kind jewelry to feather dusters, Boehm birds and body-building equipment, designer fashions, fruits, seeds and books via the mails. And a lot of people are doing it.

Barbra Streisand buys records and Robert Redford, bug killers and wooden plates for his Utah home from the Horchow book to avoid the attention of fans while shopping.

Burt Reynolds admits he is a catalog junkie, buying pony carts from Srugi Mfg. Co, porcelain Fu dogs, lingerie and Countess Mara ties from a Sakowitz catalog, among others, particularly when he is on location and can't get near any shops.

But for most mail order customers, the irresistible appeal is the convenience of catalogs compared with shopping in a store - never having to find a salesperson, never having to wait in line to pay for something, never having to park to place an order.

And the sales clincher is phone call ordering with a credit card.

Her index finger traced the pictures to their descriptions and prices on the slick pages of the catalog as she gave her order to the Horchow telephone order operator: The low crystal vase was something she'd always needed for fresh-cut flowers ($55); a special friend surely doesn't already own a vodka server ($50); this white satin nightgown is terribly pretty - for herself ($40); look, here's the bedside water carafe she had seen at a friend's house and had hunted all over for . . . ($25); the lucite drawers could be a great space saver ($90).

In less than five minutes she spent $260 plus taxes and shipping charges. She turned, glowing, to a friend at the next desk and said, "You know, I feel like I've just been talking to Santa Claus . . ."

Horchow thinks the reason for the mail order boom for him and everyone else is simply the ease of shopping without having to go out of the house, park the car in a shopping center (and likely not be able to find it later) or in an expensive downtown lot, find a salesperson, get information about the product (which the salesperson probably doesn't have anyway) and finally pay for it.

"Even if you can get someone to wait on you," says Horchow, with cheery self-interest, "It's likely she'll get tied up on the phone and leave you for a half-hour. With mail order, all of the information you need to know about any item is right next to the picture," he persuades. Horchow has sold 40,000 ice cream scoops at $15 each, $300,000 worth of Mollie Parnis Ultrasuede dresses at $240, and 5 (all he could get) Himalayan chests at $1,750 through the mails.

Susan Anderson started her Kaleidoscope catalog business - its volume is now $15 million - in 1974 when she was tired of being a teacher and adolescent counselor and wanted, instead, to be in business for herself like her grandfather and father had been. She sticks to the "wish book" theory of mail order shopping. "Most people are buying items for themselves," she says, and "when they arrive it is just like getting a present - it's already paid for and usually a surprise that you might have forgotten you ordered and besides never actually saw except for a photograph." It works, says Anderson, whether you are selling $65 Geoffrey Beene tunics, $6.95 key rings or $225 Cuisinarts.

Maxwell Scroge, a direct mail advertising and marketing specialist, thinks the mail order boom relates directly to the changing role of women, with more than half the adult women in households earning over $15,000 and half the mothers of school age children now being employed. The female work force is growing at four times the rate of the male work force, Scroge told a meeting of the National Retail Merchants Ass'n.

According to Scroge, mail order accounts for at least 15 per cent of the total general merchandise sales in this country, mostly because, "It's often a better way to buy," he says. "This (mail order) store is so convenient to buy in you don't even have to get out of bed."

Scroge's company surveyed mail order customers on their reasons for shopping and was told by one respondent, "I buy less when I buy at home. I can plan by budgeting better when I buy at home."

If the convenience of simply filing out a form and mailing it in doesn't grab you, probably the fact that you can telephone orders on an 800 Watts number, no charge to the caller, will. Says Roger Horchow, whose customers place about 32 per cent of their orders on the phone, "I really prefer it that way. Then I can tell the customer the status of each item."

(Recently he was telling callers that some items like the miniature stuffed bears in a classroom had been caught in the dock strike.)

Each morning Jim Burkhardt who is in charge of catalogs for Sakowitz stores in Houston, listens to all phone recordings from the night before - to screen out the few obscene calls for the staff which minds the phones daily from 7 to 7. Calls recorded during the night are answered by a jingle spouted by a man who sounds amazingly like Burkhardt, and calls are returned by the operator at the time the caller requests.

The Sears Roebuck catalog, with a circulation of 330 million when you include the 40 different books yearly (20 of them specialized books), has a similar profile.

Sixty per cent of the Sears business is done by the telephone, which a Sear's spokesman interprets as the "convenience factor," and over half of the business comes from metropolitan areas.

Horchow relies on five buyers and a list of friends and relatives to tell him what his customers want. His mother, Beatrice Horchow, who lives in Arlington, Va., and is head of volunteers in the East for the Red Cross, told him about a grease mop which he promptly added to the catalog. He has sold 20,000 at $6 each.

His mother-in-law clued him to a "hokie" sweeper which has also been a huge seller. One of his daughters spotted the bandanas in 12 colors in Mexico and so far they have sold 4,000 dozen. His wife Carolyn, one of the Horchow buyers, was always irked by ugly magarine tubs on the breakfast table and had plain white tubs especially made in Portugal. They, too, have been good sellers.

"It is the kind of item you never knew you needed till you saw it," says Horchow, explaining its success.

Horchow challenges each item under consideration with the question, "Who would you send it to?" and even so, holds the right to say "No," a prerogative he says he uses infrequently.

Robert Sakowitz, president of the Sakowitz stores, chooses 60 per cent of all the items for his book - which will top $14 million in sales this year, a 45 per cent gain over a year ago. Beyond the opening gimmicks like the two-person flying saucer with turbofan powerplant for $1,125,000 (about which they've had several inquiries - mainly from teachers looking for a new kind of class trip - but, so far, no sales) the book contains mostly fashion items, the kind that the Sakowitz store features. Last season the blouston was a big seller. This year it is the big-sleeve style that Sakowitz found trendy at the Paris showings.

Clothing has always been a winner with the volume catalogs like Sears, making up 40 percent of their catalog sales, of the L.L. Bean and Norm Thompson sports catalogs, which are largely clothing. Even the smaller catalogs sell certain clothing items well. Talbott's of Hingham, Mass., and Caroll Reed in North Conway, N.H., run about neck-and-neck selling more than 3,000 Diane von Furstenburg wrap dresses with each catalog.

But in the last two years, because clothing has been scaled to fit the body more loosely - often sized merely small, medium or large - clothing sales have increased and returns decreased. (Clothing returns amount to as much as 20 per cent for Roger Horchow, for example, mostly because the size is wrong. The store simply sends out another in a different size.)

Publishing the catalog costs Horchow 32 cents per book; the Sakowitz catalog costs 87 cents, Sears $2.25 and Britches $2.50. Whatever the price, the key to the sale is often the photograph - the color in which an item is photographed usually sells best.

For that reason Horchow spends about $20,000 per catalog on photography and Sakowitz has a corporate officer hand-holding the photographic process every step of the way. "A photograph can make all the difference and a lot of monkeys can get in the way of good photograph," says Burkhardt at Sakowitz.

It is not always the fault of the photograph. Sometimes, like Horchow's pumpkin ice buckets, the item is a real bummer. While Sakowitz may crow about selling 200 Adolfo costumes at $400, they freely admit that a $325 dress from the "hottest" name in the business last year "went to the grave early," as Burkhardt puts it.

Horchow's colleagues usually vote some item they expect to be a poor seller in each catalog "The Fruitcake Award." This round, they believe, it is likely to be the Staffordshire dogs at $50. The all-time loser was a black velvet party dress for girls at $35 offered last January. What it had going for it was that it was a pretty dress made by the queen's dressmaker. What it didn't was the fact that black velvet just doesn't sell in January.

Horchow bought 500 dresses, sold 75 at the full price, sold more in the sale catalog, and finally remaindered the rest as a donation to a children's home.

Horchow, who attended Western High School here for one year while his father was in the army, was appointed gift buyer for Neiman-Marcus after working seven years for another Texas store. In 1969 he was made vice president of the Neiman-Marcus mail order division.

The Horchow collection is the outgrowth of the Kenton Collection which Roger Horchow founded and headed for two years before buying the company and its name from Kenton.

Horchow is a big mail order shopper himself. His khaki pants, he says, are from L.L. Bean, his sweaters from Cable Car Clothiers, his shirts from Brooks Brothers, his underwear from Neiman-Marcus.

"I figure I'm not unique," says Horchow in explaining why he's adding a menswear catalog called Chas. Pfeifer next year. (Pfeifer is his wife's maiden name.)

The problem for all the catalogs, he says, is not only having the wrong items, but having enough of the right one.

Recently Horchow dispatched two buyers (at a cost of $5,000) to Hong Kong to cajole a manufacturer into making more of $46 oatmeal-colored sweater for which he got 4,500 orders from the holiday preview book. "They thought I was crazy when I placed the original order for $25,000 worth of those sweaters," Horchow recalled. "But they were all down there cheering when the new shipment arrived on the dock."

Losers in mail order catalogs are unloaded through sale catalogs, in regular retail stores - if the book stems from one, or in specially set up outlets, at about half the usual cost. Horchow has an outlet store in Dallas. Kaleidoscope opens its warehouse for such sales around Thanksgiving each year in Atlanta.

Horchow, who mails 25 million documents a year, takes it on the chin gracefully when teased about a few miserable items.But when someone lumps him in the category of junk mail, well that's when he put up his gloves.

"Everyone has the right to throw away the catalog," he says, and in fact, he offers a disclaimer saying he'll take any name off the list for the asking. Out of the 25 million, he's had only 435 requests for no future mailings.

Horchow spends more than $1 million yearly on postage. While the catalog is sent bulk rate, his fees help support first class mail, he says.

"When I call the postmaster , he listens," says Horchow proudly, adding quickly, "It may be the only place where I really have any clout."