Customers would often write to Eaton's to request an item that did not appear in the catalogue. To meet this need, Eaton's employed young women to work as "personal shoppers." It was their job to search the store for such requested items, going from counter to counter with letter in hand. The Fall/Winter 1886-87 Eaton's catalogue introduced these women as a "staff of young ladies", who were "carefully selected for their painstaking dispositions and excellent judgement in matters of dress... [to] give distant purchasers the benefit of a thorough knowledge of the most advanced fashions."
Filling orders was sometimes quite a challenge, depending on how well a customer described what they wanted. Often the women had to make decisions based on scant information. For example, determining whether a requested shoe was meant for a child or adult, based on the size of the foot that had been traced at home and included with the letter. Despite the many challenges, the personal shoppers did a good job. Many customers were so pleased with the articles bought on their behalf that they sent letters of thanks and even gifts, such a basket of fruit or eggs for "Mrs. Eaton and her family."
By the 1887-88 catalogue, Eaton's was able to boast of their mail order department. Their personal shoppers, they reported, "must have besides a keen, clear, personal inspiration - something more than exact machinery - insight, power to look behind ink and paper and catch the living person to be served; ability to make a mental photograph of the writer, and read between the lines the thought that created the words. Given these elements combined in true proportion, and the result is the ideal mail-order department."
The Shopping Service, as it became known, was able to offer personal shoppers to not only buy for, but to advise Eaton's mail order customers. The personal shoppers were there to select anything from a single lace collar, to an entire wardrobe.
The Shopping Service grew quickly and allowed customers ease of mind; they placed requests for items not pictured in the catalogue knowing that their order would be filled with good judgement. In the rare instance when the choice made on their behalf proved to be unsatisfactory, the customer needed only to return the unwanted item for exchange or full refund.
Sometimes items were ordered that were out of stock. In this case, if the customer so indicated, another item of better quality would be selected for substitution. There was usually a great variety to choose from. Ladies gloves were, at times, available in a number of different styles and in 15 colours, and lace curtains came in 300 unique patterns.
Eventually, The Shopping Service started to interfere with the regular store operations. There were more than 100 clerks filling mail orders in 1890. By 1900, there were sometimes so many personal shoppers filling orders for distant customers that they crowded the floor and elevators, making it difficult for in-store shoppers to do their shopping.
The mail order operation had grown so large by 1903 that it was moved to a separate building in Toronto, where it continued to provide the excellent service it prided itself on for many years. People could and did still write asking for specific things not illustrated in the catalogues. In the 1920 and 1930s for example, personal shoppers were frequently asked to select gifts for community organizations holding Christmas parties.
However, times changed and in 1976 Eaton's shut down its mail order service after 92 years of operation.