When I do practically anything, I tend to muse about the origins of whatever it is I am doing. This is my way of looking at something in a different way. So today I’m going to think about shopping.
In the days before money, people would presumably have gone around trading for the things that they needed, which makes shopping in the way we understand it difficult and complicated. Role specialisations (butcher, baker, candlestick maker) would probably have arisen well before money was invented and shops as we know then would be unlikely to have existed.
Trade would have been, for example, a barrel of apples for a side of pork, and complex networks of obligations would have arisen as Peter owes Paul a dozen eggs, while Paul owes Saul a side of pork, who owes Roger a hour or so labour to repair a pig byre, and Roger owes the blacksmith some wheat for his knives, and so on.
Once the human race invented money, this would all have become a lot easier. The value of the side of pork or the labour to repair the pig byre could be assessed and indebtedness could be quantified more accurately. The advantages were obvious. Instead of passing around obligations, one could use money to pay for things.
Of course, the underlying principle is the same, the exchange of one thing of value for another thing of value, but the big advantage was the decoupling of the direct “thing for a thing”. An intermediate “thing of value” or money, enabled the keeping track of indebtedness much easier.
A smithy would be naturally located in a central position, as would the mill. Other suppliers would maybe not be so central – the proto-butcher might travel around the countryside killing and butchering animals, and the proto-baker probably worked from home and may have dealt with the passing trade and also delivered. Perhaps the proto-milkman might have distributed his spare milk and butter around the countryside too.
It’s likely that market places existed before money was invented, as places for people to trade their surpluses for other people’s surpluses, but the invention of money would probably have boosted the use of market places, and specialist traders would turn from prototypes to more specific traders.
And a retail/wholesale split may have happened pretty much as a result of the invention of money. The beef and pig farmer may have completely dropped any attempt to grow grain, or to keep a milk cow, if he could sell all his animals to the butcher and buy bread, grain, milk and cheese and butter from similar specialists.
So, the market place may have started out as place to trade produce, but it would have swiftly changed to a place where one could buy stuff. Pretty soon it would have occurred to the market traders that the hassle of setting up stalls and taking them down each day was a waste of time. They would use the new money to buy a house in or near the market, not to live in, but to store and even market their goods.
From the point of view of the customers, as well as the new class of merchants, this was a great move. Instead of travelling to the butcher, the baker, and indeed the candlestick maker, they only had to go to one place, the new expanded market. It would not be long before the houses around the market were modified to make buying and selling easy and for merchants to display their wares. Shops were invented.
More exotic products, such as spices from abroad and fabrics from other parts of the country would have started to make their way in to the market places as distant merchants could send large quantities of their goods and would know that a local trader could buy them, and sell them on to local people. Of course, a profit was to be had at each stage of the process.
Shops would naturally tend to arise near the market (which would still be used for livestock and work fairs), so shopping areas would have arisen, well placed in the town centres.
In the largest centres of all, the cities, this concentration of shopping gave rise to problems for the shopkeepers, such as where to store one’s wares, and, inevitably, how to attract customers. Attractive shops help with the attraction, as does a large range of wares. Warehouses slightly out of town and large storeroom solve some of the other problems.
A larger range of wares means that some shops would have started to sell multiple types of wares. A clothier may sell clothes for all purposes, gender and ages, and may also sell raw materials for clothes making and the tools for making clothes. A hatter may also start to sell suits, maybe from the clothier, wholesale.
Some time in the 20th century the so called department stores became popular. These store sold wide ranges of things for as many household needs as possible. They were called department stores as they were divided up into departments – clothes here, crockery and other cooking equipment there, haberdashery here, gardening requisites there. Even jewelry would perhaps be found over there.
We are seeing the ultimate in bricks and mortar shopping these days, in the big shopping malls. These are usually based around a supermarket or a department store and contain many smaller speciality stores. Since they are truly “single places to shop” or “one stop shopping” they can be locates away from the town or city centres, to the detriment of any remaining city centre shops.
But in this virtual age, virtual shopping is becoming more important. You can buy almost anything that you can think of on line these days, even your daily groceries, and it is usually cheaper. However, there may be a limit to this, as many people like to touch and feel and pick and choose what they purchase, and clothes often need to be tried on. So while the on line trend in shopping is gathering pace, it is probable that bricks and mortar shops will survive, in some form, at least for a moderate amount of time.