In Defense of Sutlers Submitted

by Folo Watkins

The following appeared on the revwar mailing list and is reprinted here with Mr. Sullivan's permission:

On Fri, 22 March 1996, a member of the "RevWar list" wrote:

"Similarly, I ordered a fair amount of copperware by mail. About a month and a half later I got a note saying that it would be six months before it was delivered. I finally got it 11 months after the order. Of course, this guy managed to keep all of the 'sutlers' well supplied with his goods, and always had plenty to sell at events -- basically, there's always product for those who DON'T pay in advance, but if they've got your money already, you go to the bottom of the list.

"It doesn't take much math to figure out what's going on here- if you can get enough people to pay in advance for product that won't be delivered for many months, or even to make a 50 percent deposit, just the interest on that money can amount to thousands or tens of thousands a year. The faster you deliver on the prepaid orders, the less 'free' money you make on the deal. Because of that, the way for the dealer to maximize his income is to work on the orders that are not paid for in advance, and to delay the ones that are paid for by as long as he thinks he can get away with.

"In a lot of fields this sort of behavior wouldn't be tolerated, but in this one it pretty much seems to be the norm."

I had to answer this one, because A) since I'm the "Sutler Coordinator" for the Continental Line, I thought I had to write something, and B) it presents a good forum to air some sutler gripes coming from both directions.

First, if the person who made the above post thinks we as sutlers are dealing in volumes where "the interest on that money can amount to thousands or tens of thousands a year" well, think again. I'll let you in on a business secret: I have NEVER had sales over $800 at any event I have ever attended. If I sell $500 at an event I consider it a success. The LARGE 18th-century sutlers sell on average about $5,000 at LARGE events. There are maybe two or three large events per year -- most events are smaller ones. Most sutlers are smaller as well. Remember, we are talking gross sales, not profit. Do the math, and if you think that we make thousands on the interest alone, well, you aren't talking about current interest rates, or any other ones (except maybe Brazilian currency inflation).

Second, most retail sutlers don't get every item they order from these suppliers either -- it just looks that way, because we order lots of stuff. So when you see what we have to offer, often it is only what we have received from our supplier, not everything we have ordered (maybe the stuff that we have that you ordered was ordered six months ago, too)! Third, most suppliers require at least 50% up front on all orders. Frankly, I don't get anything on credit from the people I purchase from. I pay up front, just like you, for everything.

Fourth, there is vicious cycle going on here. We offer items for sale. You think you can get them cheaper if you go to the source. You go to the source, who is used to selling wholesale. The source begins to sell retail. The source is shortly overwhelmed with small orders mixed in with the big ones. Production runs cannot be set up, because there are all of these individual orders. The supplier's wholesale AND retail business begins to suffer. People then start complaining about the sutler, and begin to go somewhere else.

Fifth, about delivery times, many sutlers lie on purpose. (Gasp!) It's true! If you call sutler A, and are told that if you want that item, you'll get it in six months, and you call sutler B and are told that you can have that item in one month, who do you buy from?
These delivery times are promised even though both sutlers get the items from the SAME SOURCE and experience the same delivery times. After three months, you call the sutler and ask "Where is my item?" And the sutler says, "Well, I've had a real problem with that, but I should have it soon." Three more months go by, and now you're really getting mad. But then your item arrives, and you forget about how the first sutler told you the truth, but you didn't want to believe it.

Sixth, deal with sutlers that attend events. We are out there, in the open, unable to dodge any criticism that comes our way. The sutlers that never show up, well, they can treat people anyway they like. If you stop and think about it, there is a strong parallel between the sutlers that attend events and the one's that give good service.

I HATE DEFENDING THESE PEOPLE! Unscrupulous sutlers should be damned roundly. We as sutlers all get tarred with the same brush, whether we like it or not. In my business I make every effort to get things out as quickly as possible. I am trying this year to turn orders around even faster. But things happen. Sullivan Press is not my main source of income. So when my boss says "You're going to Denver", or my child gets sick, or something else comes up that is a priority in my life (as in the impending sale of our house and the impending birth of our second child), well, Sullivan Press gets put on hold.

What can you as a re-enactor do about it?
1. Stop buying from sutlers that lie about their delivery times.
2. Stop trying to go around the sutler to the source. It gums up the works for everybody. You might save a little money, but you'll definitely lose time.
3. Start canceling your orders when you don't get things on time.
4. Deal with people that attend events.
5. When you stop doing business with a sutler, tell him or her why. If they want to stay in business, they WILL change. If you don't tell them why, they'll never change.

Bob Sullivan, Sullivan Press

Editor's note: Sullivan's Press sells a variety of reproduction 18th-century books and documents. Write for a price list at: P.O. Box 1711, West Chester, PA 19380-0057 or email at: