The bed sheets were on sale, they were tempting, and the catalog would accept returns. So Stanley Hura ordered them.
That was more than 20 years ago, and Hura, a New York interior decorator, has shopped by mail ever since, even though he could buy bed linens and most other furnishings within minutes of home."But it was so easy," says Hura, who through the years has ordered, among other things, kitchen gadgets, appliances, towels, even furniture.
Spiegel and J.C. Penney still issue their big books, but Sears Roebuck & Co., the granddaddy of mail order, dropped its general merchandise catalog in 1993 in favor of smaller specialty catalogs - including one for home furnishings.
Direct Marketing Association, a trade group in New York, says that of 10,000 catalogs published, at least 700 are related to home decorating. "The number would be much larger if home remodeling and home building were taken into account," says Chet Dalzell, DMA spokesman.
According to the Simmons Market Research Bureau of New York, in 1994 there were 25.4 million mail-order transactions for curtains, bedspreads and linens; furniture, cookware and kitchen items; stereo equipment, small appliances and gardening items. The figures compare with 23.3 million in 1990.
Of the home furnishings bought by mail, home accessories seem to dominate, perhaps because no exact measurements are required and the selection is wide.
Gail Green, a decorator in New York, relies on catalogs for small mirrors, area rugs, lamps and accessories that she mixes with antiques.
"Nobody is going to know the difference between expensive antiques and modestly priced adaptations when they are displayed together in an attractive mix," Green says. "In fact, it is more effective to have a mix. Everything doesn't have to be a star. There can be supportive accessories."
Despite the obvious pleasures of catalog shopping, there are issues to consider before picking up the telephone.
For Hura, the major issue is "if the color reproduction in the book is different from reality."
Another issue is with returns. Repacking, particularly bulky items, can be a problem. And while returns may be allowed, you may have to pay shipping charges.
Then, too, items shipped unassembled have to be assembled. And for those that have to be measured, such as window shades and blinds, there's the potential for costly buyer error.
Measuring for window treatments is, indeed, an aspect of mail order that customers don't like. Another is selecting fabrics, according to Irene Wilson, vice president of the Spiegel catalog in Down-ers Grove, Ill.
To at least partially address these concerns, some mail-order houses include detailed measuring guides in their catalogs and offer fabric swatches for free or for a nominal fee deducted from future orders.
If an item arrives damaged, most catalog companies will pick it up and replace it or offer a refund. But if you're an impulse shopper who orders something and later decides against it, mail-order isn't for you.
"You have to be a confident shopper to buy from a catalog," Hura says, "because the process of returning things is irritating and time-consuming, which defeats the whole purpose."