The history of how we shop: Charting the evolution of retail

Simone Aziga
Copywriter & Editor

The process of selling and buying goods dates back several hundred years. The most transformative period arguably occurred at the outset of the 20th century. Journey through the major people, places and events that defined the modern era of retail.

The 1900s & the 1920s – The Only Way Is Up: Building the Modern Department Store In tandem with growing population sizes and the Industrial Revolution, entrepreneurs at the turn of the 20th century thought it fit to simplify the shopping experience. Society was accustomed to smaller, specified stores and the concept of “one-stop” shopping didn’t exist yet. Enter the department store. Customers were able to shop leisurely across “departments” in one standalone building, instead of rushing from market stall to market stall. Establishments like Hudson’s Bay, Harrods and Neiman Marcus set the groundwork for customer service and shopping as we know it today.
Highlights of the time:

  • Opening to the public in Paris in 1852, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche was the first department store in the world. Still in operation today, Le Bon Marché continues to cater to an affluent clientele.
  • John W. Nordstrom and Carl F. Wallin starts a shoe store called Wallin & Nordstrom in 1901. This company later expands and becomes the US-based department store chain Nordstrom.
  • Founded by Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. in 1908, the flagship store of Selfridge & Co. (commonly known as Selfridges) opens on March 15, 1909, in London. The television show Mr. Selfridge (2013 to 2016) depicted the early years of Selfridges.
  • The first modern department store by Hudson’s Bay Company (later known as The Bay) opens in 1913 in downtown Calgary, Alberta.
  • In 1915, Vincent Astor develops the concept of an inexpensive, self-service store to buy food and household goods. This is known as the grocery store today.

The 1920s & the 1930s – Let the Good Times Roll … but for How Long? The beginning of the Roaring Twenties brought rapid-fire growth and prosperity across all industries including retail. Consumers had new-found money and wanted to spend it. Technological developments around the world thrived. Although still bound to family life and domesticity, many women began staking a claim to the freedom that society allowed them. In the US, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote and a strengthened economy meant more jobs became available. Retailers and advertisers began targeting this “new” woman and the perceived values she upheld. Exciting advancements in fashion, music and culture had a strong influence on societal thinking too.
Highlights of the time:

  • In September 1924, the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue store opened in New York City, occupying an entire city block from 49th to 50th streets to much fanfare. Today, Saks is a household name and has expanded across North America.
  • Sears, already well known as a mail-order retailer in the US, opens its first store in 1925 in Chicago.
  • In August 1930, King Kullen, the first “supermarket” in the world opens on Long Island, New York.
  • The film industry plays a pivotal role in the proliferation of fashion trends. Hollywood studios and department stores often came together in the 1930s to strategically target potential consumers.
  • Founded in 1837, luxury Canadian department store chain Holt Renfrew celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1937. The company also begins forming relationships with leading European designers and couture houses; bringing luxury goods to wealthy Canadians.

The 1940s & the 1950s – Shopping for the Nuclear Family: Wholesome Values and White Picket Fences During the post-war period, men returned to the workforce while many women assumed the roles of dutiful housewives. Growing population sizes (thanks to the baby boom) and a recovering economy facilitated suburbanization. Young families migrated to the suburbs eventually prompting shopping malls to prevail. Demand was high for this new way of life and the products that went along with it. To this day, suburbia and the shopping mall are synonymous.

Highlights of the time:

  • Holt Renfrew hosts M. Christian Dior as he unveils his New Look in 1947. Boasting a highly feminine silhouette, the New Look revolutionized how women dressed in the post-war period. By purchasing garments styled in the New Look - enhanced busts, accentuated waists and voluminous skirts - women were able to buy into a symbol of perfected femininity.
  • Park Royal, Canada’s first shopping centre opens in West Vancouver in 1950.
  • Sears continues its aggressive growth with 700 stores in the US. Expansion into Canada and Mexico happens soon after.
  • In 1958, Bank of America launches the first modern iteration of the credit card. This invention has a lasting impact on the way the world purchases.
"Journey through the major people, places and events that defined the modern era of retail."

The 1960s & 1970s - Counterculture Goes Boom, Retail Aims High Civil unrest and a hostile political climate define this era. Young people became disillusioned with the dreams their parents were sold and the social norms of the 1950s. In the 1960s especially, anti-war sentiments, the Civil Rights Movement and Second-Wave Feminism captivated a generation. Music, fashion and film mirrored this break from conservative traditions. A growing middle class, new electronic devices and technological achievements permanently changed the way retail operated.

Highlights of the time:

  • The first automated teller machine (ATM) is used in 1967 by Barclays Bank in the UK.
  • Mechanical cash registers soon give way to electronic cash registers in the early 1970s. With this development, barcodes emerge in 1974, making it easier to track purchases and inventory.
  • Originally founded in 1950, Walmart opens its doors for the first time in 1962. Rival competitor Target opens its first store in 1962 as well.
  • In 1969, the American clothing retailer The Gap, Inc. (known as The Gap) was founded by Donald and Doris F. Fisher. Today the Gap’s subdivisions include Banana Republic, Old Navy, Intermix and Athleta.
  • Discount and big-box stores usually meant trouble for mom-and-pop shops. Some small businesses shut their doors during this era, unable to keep up with the competition and the level of convenience big-box stores provide.
  • Modern retail point-of-sale terminals start gaining popularity in the late 1970s.

The 1980s – Living in a Material World Often defined by glamourous excess and materialism, the 1980s saw plenty of social shifts and political upheaval. Around the world, an economic recession jump-started the decade. The US lived through the heyday of Reaganomics. With softened government regulations beginning in the early 1980s, television infomercials caught consumers’ attention and drove sales to new heights. Mall culture was huge with teens using these glossy retail spaces as their personal playground.

Known as “category killers”, chain stores that specialize in one kind of merchandise or category, rose in prominence. For example in 1983, Best Buy strengthened their emphasis on selling the latest consumer electronics. The 1980s also saw a surge in the advancement of computers. The IBM Personal Computer was released in 1981 and went on to dominate the market. Not to be outdone, Apple, Inc. soon followed with the debut of the Macintosh in 1984. Personal computers (PCs) entered households worldwide. They set the stage for simplified store operations and online shopping in the 1990s.

The 1990s and 2000s - “You can buy that online.” Parallel to the exponential growth and widespread use of the internet, retailers across the globe sought to bring their in-store shopping experience online. No longer the Great Unknown, the World Wide Web became a key touchpoint in solidifying the relationship between consumers and retailers.

Highlights of the time:

  • Most notably, Amazon.com, now the world’s largest Internet retailer, is founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994.
  • In 1995, Pierre Omidyar starts AuctionWeb which later becomes eBay. Walmart, Macy’s and others soon follow suit with their own e-commerce websites as the 1990s progressed.
  • In 2004, Tobias Lütke, Daniel Weinand, and Scott Lake launch Shopify to sell their snowboard equipment in Ottawa, Ontario. From humble beginnings in a coffee shop, over 600,000 active businesses are now on this e-commerce software platform.
  • Contactless payment technologies (known as today “tap”) begin with the Visa payWave in 2007.
We lay the foundation for your brand's next big thing with a tech-enabled retail space.

The 2010s and beyond – Retail Apocalypse, Now? Looking Ahead and Making Sense of the Future Although e-commerce shows no signs of diminishing popularity, brick-and-mortar still has its place. More brands are finding success by launching e-commerce websites first and later extending their reach through pop-up spaces, standalone stores and showrooms. Take, for instance, Glossier. Born and sold online, this cosmetics brand regularly hosts pop-ups. Realizing that their consumers still want to touch, see and feel what they’re buying, Glossier’s pop-ups create an immersive shopping experience rooted in the brand’s ethos of “laissez-faire” beauty. Getting IRL face time with their devoted following has increased brand awareness offline and pushed Glossier’s annual revenue into the millions. Emerging brands like Casper (mattresses), Everlane (modern clothing basics) and Gymshark (fashion-focused activewear) have all followed a similar path to success. Retail, alongside social media marketing, in-app purchases and peer-to-peer recommendations, are instrumental in driving traffic to e-commerce websites.

These recent years haven’t been without a fair share of challenges, hence the term “retail apocalypse.” Retail giants like Sears and Toys ‘R Us faced insurmountable financial struggles, while their counterparts are downsizing at an alarming rate. Widely popular in the US, Target stumbled into the Canadian market before quickly retreating back stateside with $2.1 billion in losses. A & P, the American chain of grocery stores, closed in 2015 after 156 years in business.

The truth is shopping habits and the retail landscape are changing at breakneck speed. Millennial consumers are internet-savvy and may find the convenience of e-commerce more appealing. An effortless shipping and fulfillment process is a deciding factor for many. Consumers are conscious of the power in their dollars, often choosing to shop at local and independent retailers instead of large mass-market stores. Many businesses are transitioning to become completely paperless by solely accepting card payments and sending receipts by email. At the same time, shopping online can’t compete with a strategic in-store experience that provides the instant gratification of a purchase, hassle-free customer service and offerings that are only available at store level.

Big or small, retailers who cultivate a seamless shopping experience from sales floor to homepage stand to have the biggest opportunity for continued profits in the years to come. The future is ripe for the taking.

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