It started in the US but is spreading here. Take two companies that started small and have boomed as others have gone bust.
Last week, Mark Constantine, of Cosmetics To Go, was pushing his product at the Clothes Show Live exhibition, decked out in plastic angel wings, moving niftily amid clouds that festooned the companies' stand.
It is not the conventional behaviour of a managing director, but Cosmetics To Go, of Poole, Dorset, is not a conventional company. It uses zany, pun-spattered catalogues to sell its products. Take your pick from Christmas gift sets: It's Frosty, Man; I Snow Him So Well; Snowing Me, Snowing You. Get the drift?
The catalogue has achieved cult status in certain quarters and is designed to hang around. 'We did think of putting a hole in the top so you could hang it by the loo. People should browse through it.'
A recent promotion asked customers to nominate friends who would be sent free bath bombs through the post. It took off more spectacularly than Mr Constantine had expected. 'We thought about 70,000 people would take it up. In the event, 270,000 did.'
But Cosmetics To Go has found that its policy of sending 'freebies' through the post, followed up by a catalogue, is building up a client list and paying dividends.
Research shows that nearly four in five of the company's customers are affluent urban couples or house-sharers aged 25 to 44.
Selling should be fun - so when Mr Constantine was asked by Radio One if he would do a live make-up session for a transvestite customer as part of the station's Clothes Show Live coverage, he was happy to oblige. It turned out that the man had spent pounds 200 on Cosmetics To Go products the week before. He first got to hear of the company when a champagne bath bomb arrived through the post. Positive proof that spreading the product by spreading fun pays dividends.
'The pleasure of Cosmetics To Go is that we make the kind of products we want to,' says Mr Constantine, a herbalist and trichologist.
Growth has been phenomenal - building up from a pounds 100 start in Mr Constantine's bedroom to a pounds 6m- pounds 7m turnover. Taking a break from his stand, Mr Constantine talks business. 'This year we'll have done 10 times the turnover we did in 1989. We have received critical acclaim, but to say we are phenomenally successful suggests that we are making massive profits - which we are not.'
Another entrepreneur keen to embrace the potential of mail order is Johnnie Boden, a 32-year-old former investment banker who founded his up-market clothing company, Boden, two years ago, using friends as models.
Turnover this year will be in the range of pounds 1.5m - more than double the year before. Mr Boden said that he had always been interested in clothes and when he worked in America he was impressed by the range of quality garments available by mail order. 'I was pretty frustrated in the City, so after months of boring my friends I decided to go for it.' The catalogues include the type of clothes Mr Boden would - and does - wear. It uses adverts in selected broadsheet newspapers.
It's classy clobber. The latest catalogue - the company's sixth - includes corduroy trousers with fishtail backs and belt loops, poacher's jackets, Oxford-check shirts, suede waistcoats. Some clothes are unisex, but women have their own lines, including skirts in corduroy, and plain or crushed velvet, as well as carefully chosen accessories - golf bags, grip bags and Boden bags.
Mr Boden admits to being on a sharp learning curve:'If you get 51 per cent of things right, you are winning,' he said. The company has boomed in recession ('We started in the midst of one. We've never known anything else'), so he must be getting the mix right. There are 20,000 customers and eight employees. The design and commissioning of products, dealing with customers, and dispatching orders is all done in-house.
With orders averaging pounds 85 a time and customers who keep coming back for more, he is confident of further growth. 'I expect it to continue at the current rate and will be quite upset if it doesn't' About 98 per cent of Boden clothes and accessories are made in Britain, but Mr Boden said British manufacturers were not doing their customers many favours. 'It's impossible to get anyone to answer a phone after 4.30pm,' he said. 'And they seem to supply goods entirely as it suits them. If you deal with the Far East, they send a fax straight back.'
He believes the lack of a service culture has held back up-market mail-order in the UK. 'It was hard to get decent well-mannered people to answer the phone.' But as both Boden and Cosmetics To Go have found, it can be done - and the profits follow.
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