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The History of Retail Shopping: A Millennium of Change

The term “retail therapy” originated in the 1980s. The Chicago Tribune claims one of the earliest uses of the term, penned by journalist Mary T. Schmich, referenced the now-familiar phenomenon: hitting the stores to improve mood and outlook on life. At some point, shelling out the dough for something new became a more potent ameliorative than exercise, sunshine, or anti-depressants.

Ask the average sixteen-year-old girl what she likes to do in her spare time, and chances are good she’ll mention hitting the local shopping mall. It’s the Mecca for consumers on Black Friday and, to a lesser degree, every weekend of the year. Going shopping with friends or wandering the stores has become an ideal kind of short-lived getaway.

Cowrie Shells and Coinage

Before there was currency, there was trading. According to archaeological finds, around 1200 BC, traders used cowrie shells as tokens similar to coins to mark the value of commercial transactions. as History of Retail Objects’ website points out. Coins later replaced cowrie shells as the currency of choice. Archaeological evidence and ancient manuscripts tell the story of ancient civilizations who used coins like Roman drachma and denarii.

According to the Encyclopedia of Ancient History, “shopping” likely consisted of purchasing necessities; for the rich, cowrie shells or gold coins would have also been used on luxuries to impress visiting dignitaries. Even then, the biggest “retail” system of which we have specific knowledge of included the agora–the Roman trading center where individual tradesmen would set up shop to offer their goods. These goods consisted of everything from the day’s catch of fresh fish or recently harvested vegetables to extraordinarily valuable purple dye.

Renaissance Europe Markets and Fairs

During turn-of-the-century (16th century) Europe, shopping took on a new form as expansive marketplaces and fairs were developed as fundraisers and temporary celebrations. One of the largest was the Foire St. Germain in Paris, a fair for the benefit of the Abbey of St. Germain, established by Louis XI in 1482, according to History of Retail Objects’ website.

This fair lasted a few weeks around Easter. Tradesman would haggle, auction, and raffle off items for the benefit of the famous Abbey. Residents of Paris enjoyed something much like an early shopping mall. Similar fairs gained popularity and spread throughout the developed Western world.

The Industrial Age and Birth of Mass-Produced Goods

With the nascent industries of the Industrial Age came the now-familiar mass-produced products that contributed to the fast, widespread industrialization of shopping culture and the birth of the retail industry as we know it. Businessmen began to see the promise in opening general-merchandise stores to profit from the now-available needed goods.

Specialty shops, urban galleria, and department stores were born in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving rise to a culture accustomed to being able to find anything they needed at the drop of a hat. In the late 1800’s, Montgomery Ward’s first mail-order catalogs and the new invention of the cash register gave shoppers more options than ever before, according to Acudesignservices.com.

The Technological Age Brings a World to Your Doorstep

Today, retailers can do almost all of their business virtually, with online and mobile shopping and complete software tools like Netsuite which controls inventory, accounting, CRM, point of sales and just about everything else. Consumers can step into stores filled with European styles, Asian electronics and kitschy decor items developed by tradesmen in third-world countries. They can hop on their cutting-edge laptops or iPhones and purchase items from vendors a world away, expecting delivery within as little as one day. They can read experts’ speculations on the potential future of technological revolution while browsing for the perfect gift for their wives, brothers, and children.


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