Retail: the story so far

If you were paying attention at primary school rather than poking the kid next to you with a recently sharpened pencil, you may well have learned about the beginnings of early retail.

Humankind was trading in some form or another as far back as 9000BC when people exchanged animals for the basics they needed to keep the literal wolf from the door.

Back then sheep, cows and camels were swapped for essential goods – a far cry from waving your smartphone at a card reader or dropping desired products into a virtual shopping cart.

Fast forward 6000 years or and the first evidence of currency can be found in the form of the shekel.

At first the shekel was a unit of weight, weighing between seven and 17 grams each, until the arrival of coins, their early design thought to have been loosely based on the shekel.

The earliest versions were embossed with identifying marks to show their worth to save traders weighing them each and every time they were used.

Imagine the queues outside Primark if this practice still took place today.

Archaeological evidence suggests open air markets have been around since ancient times, with artefacts popping up in Babylonia and Assyria, which occupied parts of modern Iraq and Syria, Phoenicia (covering parts of today’s Lebanon) and Egypt.

Sensibly, these markets were located near the centre of towns and alleyways leading from the main trading areas were populated by craftspeople who sold their wares, usually metals or leathers, directly from their premises.

Similar markets were commonplace in ancient Greece within the agora, where vendors used mats to lay out their goods, and in ancient Rome you could shop at one of two forums – Forum Romanum and Trajan’s Forum.

Trajan’s is considered the earliest example of a permanent bricks and mortar store, with four floors and multiple traders directly selling an array of goods.

Four floors and no escalators. Sounds exhausting.

Open air markets continued in the main to serve the poorer families, with farmers selling their excess crops so they could purchase equipment and the odd treat to enjoy at home.

Wealthier customers would deal more directly with suppliers – or at least their staff would – who would visit their properties, peddling luxury goods produced at home and possibly imported from abroad.

In medieval England, shops were still rare and customers would visit workshops to discuss their shopping needs with the tradesperson directly.

It was not until the 13th century and beyond that shops became more commonplace with covered arcades first making an appearance in towns like Chester and Winchester, attracting shoppers from far and wide.







By comparison, London was pretty late to the party with its retail offering with shops starting to appear during the 16th century – albeit in their most basic form to say the least.

They were little more than doorways from which vendors loudly flogged their wares, with shoppers rarely getting a look at what they were buying before parting with hard earned pennies.

It was not until the 17th century that shops really started to pop up in earnest and become more recognisable as retail outlets.

Shopkeepers began to sell a wider variety of goods, from spices to fruit, fabrics to tobacco and much more in between; their stores also began to transform aesthetically with interiors and shop fronts designed to attract custom and promote their produce, with the addition of glazing occurring in the 18th century.

Shop counters, display cases, fitting rooms and mirrors were also slowly becoming a feature around this time and, later on that century, grand shopping arcades became a mainstay in major cities.

Parisians enjoyed the more genteel environment of the Coliseé on the Champs-Elysee and the Palais-Royal, built with vast glass roofs to allow as much natural light in as possible, and designed to enable customers to avoid the filthy streets outside.

As close to today’s mall concept as you can get in terms of shopping experience, the Palais-Royal, opened in 1784, played host to around 145 boutiques, cafes, salons, bookshops and even two theatres.

London’s Piccadilly Arcade, Royal Opera Arcade and Burlington Arcade followed suit in the early 19th century; strolling around these retail meccas became a common pastime as shopping transformed into a leisure pursuit rather than just an errand.

Fast forward a few more years and department stores were born.

Known as emporia or warehouse shops in England, Harrods and Selfridges were among the first to appear in 1834 and 1909 respectively.

These elegant, bountifully stocked stores provided so much more in terms of leisure facilities and entertainment as shoppers could enjoy everything from afternoon tea to fashion shows, art exhibitions to manicures – not dissimilar to the experiences offered by modern retailers today.

The late 19th century also saw the birth of the chain store and further down the line, after the second world war, grocery stores in Britain eventually became self-service, with the Croydon branch of Sainsbury’s blazing the trail.

Physical retail enjoyed a boom in the mid to late Eighties, with the sheer number of stores and shopping centres increasing at an impressive rate, both on the high street and in the suburbs.

This surge continued into the Nineties, when outlet shopping became the latest trend and big box retailers became more common, with giant supermarkets springing up on the edge of towns, stocking almost everything one might need in one shopping trip.

And then the internet arrived.

Bricks and mortar stores took a massive hit during the first decade of the 21st century as online shopping exploded in a major way.

Coupled with the great recession of 2008, the UK’s biggest financial dip since the Second World War, retail stalwarts began to disappear at an alarming rate, leaving gaping holes in the high street and shopping centres.

An unstoppable force, the power of the internet has never subsided but smarter brands and retailers have learned to work with it rather than against it.

Delivering an omnichannel experience in today’s market has never been more important, not least since the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

While the retail landscape has changed dramatically since the turn of the century as a result of these challenging factors, much promise has also arisen as a direct result.

As unashamed retail fan-people ourselves, we see a bright future ahead once this particular storm has passed.

The retail industry can be a wily creature with many tricks up its sleeve and, as an agency, we look forward to impressing you with its many exciting facets for years to come.

If you are wondering what’s next for retail and how it might evolve, get in touch with Stellar.

Find more of our insight articles on retail experiences here.

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