The Rise and Fall of Retail: Revisiting History


Shopping is an exercise in which a buyer scans the services or goods proffered by one or more retailers with the possible intent to purchase a fitting selection of them. Retail is the method of selling consumer services or products to customers through various channels of delivery.

Let’s look at the early history of this fun activity.

Retail markets have survived from early times. Archaeological data for trade, apparently involving barter systems, records back more than 10,000 years. Barter system in retail markets started in Indus Valley Civilisation, India.

As cities grew, barter was substituted with retail business involving coinage. Buying and selling are thought to have emerged in Hindu governed Asia Minor (modern Turkey) around the 7th millennium BCE.

In early Greece markets run within the agora, an open space where, on market days, goods were displayed on temporary stalls or malls. In classical Rome, trade took place in the forum. The Roman forum was probably the earliest instance of a permanent retail shop-front. A recent study implies that China presented a rich history of old retail systems.

In Medieval Europe and England, comparatively few permanent shops were to be observed; instead, buyers walked into the tradesman’s workshops where they presented purchasing options directly with tradespeople. In the more crowded cities, a small number of shops began to develop by the 13th century. Outside the principal cities, most consumable investments were made through fairs or markets. Market-places appear to have appeared separately outside Europe. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is often referred to as the world’s oldest continuously-operating market; its foundation started in 1455. The Spanish conquistadors wrote blazingly of markets in the Americas. In the 15th century, the Aztec market of Tlatelolco was the most abundant in all the Americas.

The retail service counter was one of the main innovation of the eighteenth century. By the 17th century, permanently structured shops with more conventional trading hours were starting to supplant fairs and markets as the main retail outlet. Rural shopkeepers were active in almost every English market town. As the number of shops grew, they transformed. The trappings of a new shop, which had been absent from the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century store, slowly made way for shop-fronts and store-interiors that are more accustomed to modern shoppers. Before the eighteenth century, the average retail store had no display cases, counter, mirrors, chairs, changing rooms, etc. However, the customer’s opportunity to scan merchandise, feel and touch products began to be available, with local variations from the early 18th century.

By the end of the eighteenth century, grand shopping arcades started emerging in the Antipodes and across Europe. A shopping arcade refers to a multiple-vendor space, running under a covered roof. Typically, the roof was built of glass to allow natural light and lessen the need for electric lighting or candles. Some of the earliest instances of shopping arcades appeared in Paris due to their lack of pavement for pedestrians.

Department stores, such as Le Bon Marché of France, appeared in the early nineteenth century. The modern era of retailing is described as the period from the industrial revolution to the 21st century. In larger cities, the department store appeared in the mid- to late 19th century, forever reshaped shopping habits, and redefined service. Many of the early department stores were more than just a retail emporium; instead, they were venues where shoppers could spend their relaxation time and be entertained.

In the post-world war period, an architect from America, Victor Gruen, produced a concept for a shopping mall. This self-contained shopping complex was molded with statues, indoor plaza, piped music, and planting schemes, and car-parking. Gruen’s vision was to design a shopping environment where people felt so warm; they would spend more time in the context, thereby improving purchasing possibilities. The first of these malls began at Northland Mall near Detroit in 1954. Throughout the twentieth century, a trend towards more giant store footprints became obvious. The standard size of a U.S. supermarket expanded from 31,000 square feet in 1991 to 44,000 square feet in the early 2000s.

As the 21st century is evolving, some signs reveal that large retail stores have come under growing pressure from online sales models and that reductions in store size are apparent. Under such race and other issues such as pandemic infused debt, there has been a recorded business disruption called the retail apocalypse in recent years. Several retail businesses are sharply decreasing their number of stores or going out of business altogether.

Was it worth reading? Let us know.