how has retail changed over the last 50 years?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Entire books could be written on how retail has changed over the last fifty years, so I am just going to focus on a few facets, the trend from local to regional or even global, the demise of specialty shops due to the advent of big box stores, and the paradigmatic changes wrought by the Internet. 

When I was a little girl, my family did its shopping in the neighborhood. Moms stayed at home, many families had just one car, each community had its own stores, and the day's errands were usually accomplished on foot.  The bakery, the supermarket, the clothing stores, and the shoe stores were all clustered on a few streets, mostly locally owned and small, and customers were greeted by name.

By the time I was in my late teens, more women were working, more families had two cars, and states' "blue laws," which had prevented stores from being open on Sundays had been done away with.  More four-lane highways were built, gas was cheap, shopping malls and shopping centers blossomed, and people began shopping further afield.

The shopping malls and shopping centers tended to be owned by regional or national chains, most anchored by a regional or national department store, such as Macy's or Gimbel's.  These drew customers to the area, where they would also use the smaller specialty stores.  But while this seemed to be the established retail model, a revolution, or perhaps an evolution was brewing, with the advent of the big box stores such as Kmart and later Walmart, which took advantage of enormous economies of scale in purchasing power, as well as new opportunities to buy cheap goods overseas, thus undercutting the department stores significantly and providing customers with many of the goods they had previously purchased at smaller specialty stores or department stores. Small business owners and even owners of national chains had reason to fear a Walmart coming to a region because these big box stores put many a store out of business.

The introduction of the Internet changed all of this by allowing people to shop all over the world from their own couches, by providing the means to compare prices with a click of a button, and with the advent of delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS, which provide rates competitive with the United States Postal Service. All of the big box stores have had to create an on-line presence, since otherwise, they would cease to be.  But there is another side to the impact of the Internet, which also offers small businesses opportunities to sell all over the world, craftsmen and artists on Etsy, for example, or small technological firms with no street front presence at all, who sell through websites such as Amazon.

At the present, there is a bit of a backlash occurring, with the consequences of globalization and the Internet clearly not all beneficial to businesses or consumers. "Shop local" campaigns have been cropping up, urging customers to frequent their local businesses or buy local produce, for instance.  We are coming to understand that while globalization and the Internet have made life better in many ways, these forces have eroded or even destroyed our sense of connection and community.  As when I was a child, I make an effort to shop locally, on foot, and to support my neighborhood businesses.  I seem to have come full circle. 

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