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The Evolution of Retail Stores

Modern consumers take today's effortless retail experience for granted. Online shopping, home delivery and 24-hour shopping are the norm but not too long ago, shopping was a very different and altogether more basic experience.


Retail History

Historians believe that shopping in Europe has its roots in ancient Rome, where the earliest coins were produced in the 4th century BC - people worked to earn coins that they could exchange for goods. Money wasn't the only form of trading, however - archaeological digs have unearthed cowrie shells that were used to trade for other goods, as they had value as body ornaments and could be worked into jewellery. Dating from 1200BC, some of the shells unearthed were used to trade at the agora or Roman marketplace.

Fast-forward to Europe during the Renaissance period from the 14th to the 17th century and markets had gained more significance, although they were often held on special occasions, such as the Foire St Germain - held at Easter in Paris. Tradesmen would sell various wares in what could be described as an early open-air shopping mall.


High Street

In the 19th century, the high street shopping experience began in earnest. Householders living in urban areas didn't have the means to grow their own food, so instead they shopped in designated retail areas. Fixed prices were introduced as opposed to bartering and new services such as store credit and home delivery were launched.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges began to grow in city centres and consumers demanded a better-quality retail experience, with a greater selection of goods and services.


Home Delivery

The concept of home delivery isn't a new one. As long ago as the 19th century, local shops would deliver foodstuffs for customers – e.g. the butcher's boy on his bicycle with a joint of beef, although this was a service only the richer classes could afford.

Originally in a horse-drawn cart, milkmen delivered fresh milk daily in glass bottles and fresh eggs to customers' doors. In the early days, the amount of goods delivered was relatively small due to the lack of refrigerated storage facilities. The goods would often be delivered on ice and were stored in a cold pantry.

The growth in refrigeration in the mid-20th century led to a revolution in home deliveries. Prior to this, home refrigerators had been small and costly but mass production led to the average family being able to afford their own, so they could keep food fresh for longer.


Store Credit

Retail stores began to offer credit as early as the 19th century, often in the form of a "tab" for regular customers, whereby they could take their grocery order and pay off their tab at the end of the month. Some people saw it as immoral or imprudent, preferring to have a cash pot for shopping and bills.

However, it had mutual advantages: small farmers and rural storekeepers depended on one another for economic survival, so having a credit system was mutually beneficial in some cases.

Today, paying for retail goods on HP or using a credit card to pay in-store or online is second nature and most people don't think twice about it.


Click and Collect

In fact, a credit or debit card is crucial if shoppers wish to take advantage of another modern phenomenon: click and collect. With the boom in supermarkets - and technological advances - in the 21st century, it seemed a natural progression that consumers could buy goods from the comfort of their own home and have them delivered almost right away.

In 2011, major UK supermarket chains such as Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco were introducing click and collect as part of their services. Initially, it was offered for non-perishable goods but gradually, the full range of items, including consumables, were included in the service.

When internet retailing first took off, only stores that operated solely online without a physical high street presence delivered goods directly to consumers' doors, until the supermarkets realised they were missing out on the home shopping sector. Today, it would seem unusual if a supermarket didn't offer click and collect.


POS Systems

Technological advances in the past decade have also seen the POS (point of sale) systems widely introduced across the whole retail spectrum. Predominantly used by retail chains until recent years, POS is now used by many businesses of all sizes for making transactions, recording sales and tracking the inventory.

POS technology includes the main server, one or more terminals - dependent on the number of checkouts - a keyboard (or touchscreen) for entering data, a credit/debit card machine, a cash drawer and a receipt printer. The software stores information and manages it in a database. Retailers can keep track of sales, perform an inventory count, produce a financial report and even clock employees in and out when they register on to the checkout.

It can be used by supermarkets to check whether particular items that may not be available in-store are available online.

Analysts predict shoppers will demand better integration between retailers' online and offline channels in future, leading to a growth in digital touch-points in physical stores. It is seen as beneficial for high street stores, as one advantage they have over online stores is that consumers can see and touch the goods before making a purchase. Enabling customers to purchase in-store and also check for online goods at the same time will produce a more rounded shopping experience.

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