Still not the retail apocalypse: The ups and downs of retail over the years

The retail industry has seen many changes through the years. Disasters, war, depression – even volcanoes. What’s become clear over time is that retail is an industry which tends to come back stronger when adversity is put in its way, usually involving quite a bit of innovation.

A lot of people are quick to decree the end of retail and it feels like this is the 5th so-called retail apocalypse in as many decades. Amazon, the dotcom boom and crash, the mall apocalypse, Amazon again this time with drones and the great toilet paper shortage of 2020.

We have been writing about the so-called retail apocalypse for some time now and as far as we can tell it hasn’t happened.

So we thought we would use this time over the coming weeks to go back into the archives and look at how retail has evolved over, well, thousands of years. 150,000 to be more exact.

Amazon drones were going to end it all. Well, in-person shopping at least.

A retail history lesson: how it all began

Yes, retail is indeed an old trade and when I say “trade,” that’s pretty much where it started. Exchanging things of value, a tradition we still preserve at Christmas when Aunt Beatrice buys you socks and you convince your cousin to swap for a box of chocolate coated almonds. Nice trade!

Trade or trading dates back to prehistoric times, somewhere between the discovery of fire and the invention of clothes but still well before flame retardant fabrics. Fashion retail itself can be traced back to when the latest season was advertised as a series of cave drawings, and the fashion runway was more a fashion run-away from sabre tooth tigers. Loin cloths are a great no-chaffing alternative to over the shoulder skins. 

The trade of goods began to evolve into the retail we know today when someone quite entrepreneurial discovered pretty shells on a far away coast and started exchanging them in their home town for other items. Cowry shells – the ornamental shells of sea snails – spread as the currency of trade in many countries across the globe. In fact, some places still used them right up until the 19th century. That may seem strange but today we can pay with our phone, watch and even our face.

Enter the markets

The first organised form of retail, however, began with the advent of markets in ancient times. Open-air public markets started popping up in Babylonia, Arabia, where merchants could sell spices, foods, and goods. For more than 6,000 years markets have continued evolving, turning into bazaars in the Middle East and central markets in Europe.

But it was actually in Greece where markets began to organise themselves in a way that grouped similar merchants together. Perfumers clustered together away from the stench of the fishmongers, and the spice merchants were somewhere in the middle to mask the smells from both extremes. The Greeks were very innovative, it’s true. 

Phoenician merchants traded without social distancing – Wikimedia Commons

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and retail has afforded us many innovations in its history. Today we think selling things on Instagram is pretty clever, but one of the biggest innovations in retail came from The Phoenicians.

The who? How do you spell that? Well funny you should ask.

The Phoenicians – who were nautical masters around 1500 BC – brought goods home from far and wide and found that they needed a common way to communicate with their various customers. They made small signs to describe what the products were and how much they cost – utilising the first written language. All so you can put swing tags on things.

This phonetic alphabet and language were the origin for many other languages so that means that thanks to retail, we pretty much have writing. It was arguably one of the most clever innovations next to wheels, fire, and flame retardant togas.

Say hello to the first permanent storefronts

Roll forward a bit to 700 BC when the Roman forum gave us our first permanent storefronts.

Toga retailers, pottery retailers, food retailers. I remember reading about toga retailers a few decades ago when I was 14 studying Latin – a useful language to know – and I recall from my studies on Pompeii at the time that they had at least one toga retailer and his name was Marcellus.

He was a craftsman making and selling togas right up to 79 AD when some volcano ruined his business. Even flame retardant togas may not have helped much in that case. If you want to talk about retail apocalypses, having a volcano flatten your store with lava is certainly up there. 

One of these folk is probably Marcellus. His togas were very popular – Cambridge Latin Course – 5th Edition. 

When customer service wasn’t a thing…

Fast forward some more into the 12th century, and market towns and trade circuits were being established all over Europe. During the 13th century, London gave us haberdasheries and grocers who sold various small wares, spices and medicines.

Evidently, customer service was not an innovation yet, with London’s shops being called “rude booths” because customers were not allowed into the store itself, so they just interacted in a booth at the front and also because of their loud and unpleasant owners.

As long as there was supply and demand, the retailer couldn’t care less about being nice to you. There was another customer behind you and life was so brutal that you literally might not have been back the following week. 

Back then it was all about convenience, and there was an element of survival in depending on your local store for necessities. Unless you were wealthy and important, shopping wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience.

Then vs. now

Jump to today and the opposite is true. Although the necessity is high for many things like groceries, it’s retailers who know how to treat their customers well that are flourishing – and will continue to do so as our retail communities rebound. 

So no, this is not the retail apocalypse.

Retailers always innovate and persevere through hard times. Things always change and disasters always seem to happen but somehow the outcome is always a better way.

Thanks to the Phoenicians, we have an alphabet and pricing. The rude booths are no longer. You can actually browse stores without security following you – well perhaps not on Fifth Ave. Ask a bookstore owner about the era of Amazon. We change, we adapt and we make things better and now is that time.

It’s the start of a new retail spring.

About Vaughan Fergusson

Vaughan is the Founder of Vend. An entrepreneur and technologist, Vaughan's goal is to make retailers' lives easier. When he's not leading the team, Vaughan is working on his charitable foundation and raising his kids.