Long ago, Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward must have sold furniture from their catalogs so that those living in the far-away hinterlands could furnish their Sears packaged houses (yes, they really sold houses). Although my parents often bought much through a Designer friend, in my young years department stores (like Marshall Field's and Carson's) had BIG furniture departments and local or local "chain" furniture stores were in tactical areas. That's pretty much what we saw.
Some department stores still have furniture and furnishings-- some even have separate stores (like the Medinah Center for Bloomingdale's). And, there are occasional neighborhood stores or specialty shops, but it mostly seems that furniture catalog companies have matching stores: Crate & Barrel (and their offspring) Pottery Barn, Room & Board, West Elm, Design Within Reach, IKEA, etc., all over the country or/or all over the world. It seems pretty amazing that the catalogs have led to the stores, but I think without the huge circulation of junk mail and then internet shopping, these chains would be regional or even one store. That is how C&B started (as they just closed their second ever store in Wilmette). DWR was ONE store, too, and West Elm was nowhere NEAR Chicago. I think I've ordered from all-what is well - designed and usually exclusive to that company's line -not what I can find "anywhere".
In the past 2 weeks, I have gotten MANY catalogs. I get fewer now that I have (again) excluded myself from Direct Mail, but as I Designer, I guess they feel that I want to see them all. Actually, this time of year, it's fun because it's a sign of Change of Season and the happy thought of maybe making changes again--even little ones and especially outdoor ones.
A few thoughts: MOST of these lines are NOT "forever" items. They are easy to ship and often "knock-down" so you can assemble it yourself (or hire their guys). I had to call Pottery Barn right away a few years ago to get touch-up paint; I needed to fix a couple of not-so-well finished parts of my hall bench (the one with hooks and beadboard).
Pier One has little brochures, not big catalogs and I LOVE them. They have fun items -counter stools, anyone? It doesn't take the place of most serious stuff, but wonderful style and fabulous accent items. World Market has Sunday newspaper pull-out sections. Again, you get what you pay for, but I've gotten their rugs and their dishes and even their pre-made window coverings. AND they have a terrific selection of baskets and frames for photos or larger images.
Linens? I have always liked Pottery Barn and Crate& Barrel. Anthropologie is absolutely AMAZING for bedding, if you like that style. The one most serious catalog/chain companies is Design Within Reach and their Mid-Century items which are serious modern design of good quality and NOT trendy. Room & Board also sells classic designs. If you have followed my blog, you already know how I feel about just buying what's "in".
And, DON'T FORGET that Frontage and Ballard Designs (one of my top faves for innovative transitional design and wonderful outdoor accessories) sell all that summery outdoorsy stuff. That's why I am so happy to get their Spring Catalogs. There's also Plow and Hearth, Gardener's Eden and Plow & Hearth. Pretty much, I have bought from them all. At least I've ordered something for the kitchen or the yard, font stoop or patio, or the spare bedroom. I enthusiastically recommend all of these companies.
Disclaimer: SORRY if I forgot someone great!
Remind me and I'll be happy to add/comment!