The U.S. retail sector lost 60,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2017, and it’s on pace for more than 8,000 store closures this year. We’re beginning to see the outlines of a potential future in which online shopping drastically reduces the significance of physical stores.
In a 1979 paper, Gareth Shaw and M. T. Wild traced the beginnings of the store as it developed in British cities in the nineteenth century.
Shaw and Wild write that pre-industrial “retail” began with periodic markets or fairs. As more people moved to the cities, craftsmen began setting up local shops, selling their own products to their neighbors.
By the start of the nineteenth century, fairs were no longer the premier places to buy things in Britain. Early in the century, shopkeeping emerged as a common profession in urban areas. Looking at six British cities, the authors found that there were 62 shops for every 10,000 people in 1801. By 1851, that had nearly tripled to 178. At the same time, the number of itinerant traders also rose. Now, rather than buying directly from a craftsperson or waiting for the next market day, families could rely on middlemen offering a variety of different wares in one place.
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