At its height it was Europe’s most widely printed publication, a book found in three-quarters of British homes, a work only beaten by the Bible for its sheer ubiquity.
The complete works of Shakespeare or the latest Harry Potter? No. The Argos Catalogue… which is no more. After 47 years, and an astonishing one billion printed, the retailer has pulled the plug. Yesterday, staff were told that Covid was the final nail in the coffin for the biannual publication.
The company will now only display and list its products online.
‘This marks the end of an era,’ says Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands and one of Britain’s leading social historians.
‘For many it will be the loss of that sensual and tactile turning of the pages to discover what treasures were within and what might appear on the next page.’
And what treasures there were. For good reason it was christened ‘the laminated book of dreams’ by comedian Bill Bailey. ‘You know why it’s laminated, don’t you? To catch the tears of joy. There are so many beautiful things.’
He was joking. But only partly so. From the very first catalogue in 1973 and promising ‘utmost convenience’ and ‘dramatic savings’, shoppers could feast their eyes on the latest labour-saving devices, in-home entertainment and plush furnishings.
The first edition featured various items that would baffle many people under the age of 40, not least a remote-controlled Gnome Supreme auto slide projector — to display your holiday snaps — costing £22.90 (£274 in today’s money), a slide rule and an Olivetti hand-operated ‘adding/listing’ machine, costing a princely £41.90 (£510 today) — the closest that consumers living through the three-day-week got to a calculator.
There were also a surprising number of silver ice buckets, cut glass decanters and ‘antiqued’ home furnishings for your mock Tudorbethan semi. A brass hunting horn, a brass coal bucket and a polished and lacquered set of horse brasses for £3.35 (£40 today) all appear proudly.
It is these curios that so excite social historians and those nostalgic for a time when many of us had a sunbed in the spare room, a hostess trolley in the dining room and a fondue set gathering dust at the back of the kitchen cupboard. ‘The Argos catalogue has neatly summarised the public’s necessities as well as their aspirations; it has been the bible of consumerism,’ says Opie.
No wonder funnyman Alan Carr nominated the catalogue as his book when he was on Desert Island Discs. Such a decision undoubtedly sits well with Leigh Sparks, a professor of marketing and retail at the University of Stirling who has taken his obsession with the Argos catalogue to another level by collecting every single one.
‘As far as I know, it is the only full collection of the catalogues outside of the company itself. Even the British Library does not keep the Argos catalogues, because they decided they were “ephemera”, according to a response they sent me. I find that surprising.
‘It is a fabulous resource in terms of how culture has changed, how consumers have changed, how branding has changed and how products have changed.’
Certainly Britain’s changing tastes are chronicled in technicolour detail. Some products leap out as quintessentially of their time: space hoppers in 1973, Mutant Ninja Turtle toys in 1991 and a Justin Bieber stationery set in 2012.
In the 1984/85 edition, there is a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, costing £129.95 (£420 in today’s money).
It was then the cutting edge of computing, with eight colours, a sound range of ten octaves and a maximum text display of 32 columns and 24 lines. Dazzling! Part of the products’ charm lies in how they were displayed.
In 1981 there were various terrifying-looking bits of home exercise equipment, including a Super Strength Builder being demonstrated by ‘5-times Mr Universe, Arnold Schwarznegger’ and a Paunch Killer exercise bench ‘recommended by Emlyn Hughes’, wearing an England football kit, just in case shoppers forgot who he was. At its height in the early 1990s — when Amazon was a river in South America, not a website — each edition, one printed in January, one in July, merited a print run of 10 million copies.
Customers could pick one up free in the shops, while the shops themselves kept a number of the laminated versions for customers to flick through.
Mark Given, chief marketing officer of Argos and parent company Sainsbury’s, says the decision to wield the axe ‘weighed heavily upon me’, even though the writing has been on the wall for some time, as more customers use the Argos website either to order products for home delivery or collect in-store.
‘What you’ve seen over the past decade has been a drop from 10 million catalogues printed every edition to about 3 million today. People have been picking it up less, little by little.’ The most recent one, printed in January, merited a print run of 3.9 million.
And that was before lockdown dramatically changed the way people shop, with far more people moving online.
Argos dates back to 1958 when Richard Tompkins, an entrepreneur, launched Green Shield Stamps. Back then, thanks to the restrictive Resale Price Maintenance Act, retailers — including the burgeoning supermarkets —could not discount most prices.
Instead they offered customers loyalty stamps.
Green Shield Stamps became the biggest operator when Tesco signed up to the scheme. Customers would swap their stamps for various household items at a Green Shield Stamp showroom — the precursor to the Argos store.
In 1973, Tompkins began rebranding the Green Shield Stamps showroom as Argos, named after the Greek city, because it would feature high up in alphabetical listings in telephone directories.
Four years later, when Tesco pulled out of the scheme, Tompkins started to accept cash or credit, rather than the stamps and the catalogues became bigger.
The early editions contained 250 pages and 4,500 items; the most recent one ran to 1,748 pages with nearly 60,000 items. While the two doorstep editions will disappear, Argos’s surviving stores will still offer a Christmas gift guide.
‘It will still be key and kids will still be able circle in red the things they want,’ insists Mr Given.
But the laminated book of dreams is no more.
‘It may be inevitable,’ says Professor Sparks.
‘But when something you’ve grown up with disappears, it’s always a sad moment.’