It’s often been said that the only thing you can count on is change. This is certainly true in the area of retail. After all, half a century ago who could have predicted that we would one day do much of our shopping from home through the use of computer networks and virtual stores? Let’s take a quick look at the history of retail, and see what led us to this point.
Pre 1800s: Ye Olde Shoppes
Up until the 1800s, most “retail” was done in small, family owned establishments or in marketplaces. Products seldom traveled very far from supplier to consumer, and most business was local. Bartering was common.
1800s: The Birth of Department Stores
As transportation methods became more effective and less costly, sellers were able to start carrying more products and supplies from farther away. This allowed for larger shops to open. In 1846, Alexander Stewart built the “Marble Palace,” the largest retail store that the world had ever seen. It would later become known as the first department store, and its design would influence later department stores such as Macy’s and Gimbel’s. The cash register was invented in 1879, and soon included a small paper roll that would record details of transactions, resulting in the first “sales receipts.” Within less than a decade, this new technology had become a prerequisite for doing business. Department stores continued to grow and flourish for well over a century.
Late 1800s–mid 1900s: Mail Orders and Catalogues
As the nation began to expand westward, mail-order business experienced a boom. Catalog shipping prices were reduced to miniscule amounts to help promote expansion (thanks to the 1862 Homestead Act). In 1872 the first mail-order catalog—a single sheet of paper featuring product names and prices—was sent out by Montgomery Ward. The much more influential Sears and Roebuck catalog was first released in 1894; it featured 322 pages. Mail order catalogs remained the foremost means of purchasing items long-distance until the start of the information age.
1900s: Baby Boom
As technology continued to progress, shopping became easier. Automobiles were becoming commonplace, allowing customers to take enjoyable “shopping trips.” The first supermarket opened in Massachusetts in 1915, and the first shopping mall followed suit eight years later in Missouri. The shopping cart was invented in 1936, further facilitating the shopping experience. After the close of the Second World War, a population explosion known as the “baby-boom” increased consumer demand several fold. As a result, new highways and larger shopping centers began to appear. Suburban malls started to spring up as well, and in 1958, Bank of America launched the first credit card program (it would eventually merge with other programs and networks to become Visa in 1976). In 1962, the first discount stores—Kmart, Walmart, Target, and Woolco—opened their doors.The 1960s also saw the invention of the debit card.
Late 1900s: The Era of Big Box Stores
Department stores began to decline with the emergence of large, inexpensive bulk-items stores. Bigbox store chains began to open, making it easier for shoppers to make all of their purchases at one location. Costco Wholesale opened in 1983 and was an immediate success, and have continued to set the standard for warehouse clubs and high-end retail. In 1990, Walmart became the world’s largest retailer, further hastening the decline of department stores. In 1995, Amazon.com went active, taking advantage of the relatively new invention—the internet—to sell and ship books. It took six years before the company began to make a profit.
2000s–now: The Internet Age
As the internet became more ubiquitous and easy to use, many companies took their cues from Amazon and expanded into online retail. Online orders and automated shipping allowed customers to start shopping from the comfort of their own homes, without the need of catalogs, telephones, or postage stamps. In 2003, big box stores sales surpassed department store sales for the first time. In 2006, Facebook debuted, allowing companies to promote themselves on social networks. Social media has revolutionized the way businesses operate and communicate with consumers. This has had a huge impact on retail business. In 2008, Apple and iTunes became the largest music retailers in the world. Amazon.com went on to become the world’s largest online retailer. It has become so enormous that it takes big data analytics just to compute the information in the millions of transactions occurring daily. With that amount of people turning to the internet for shopping, many department stores and other “off-line” stores around the country began to close their doors. Malls all around the U.S. have started losing their flagship stores, which has threatened the closure of the entire shopping center.
The Future: ???
Who can really say what is in store for retail as the years march onward? However, one thing seems certain: whatever happens, the internet and other new technologies will continue to pay a big part in the future of retail. And just as America adapted from the mom-and-pop and marketplace retail models of the past, so too will we adapt to whatever new innovation comes our way.