The development of global trade

The rise of European maritime empires such as Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK and the foundation of multinational trading companies in the 16th and 17th centuries led to the development of global trade. In the 19th and 20th centuries, steamships, railroad and aviation accelerated the transport of goods between nations worldwide.

The period following World War II was characterised by the promotion of free trade and the removal of trade barriers through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was later institutionalised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The development of modern commerce

While shopping in the 18th and 19th centuries was largely characterized by weekly markets and small specialty shops, the sector underwent fundamental transformation in the 20th century.

Until the 1950s, food retail mainly took place in small corner shops that were located close to their customers. Starting in the 1950s, retailers opened supermarkets with larger sales areas and where self-service was the underlying principle. At the same time, discount stores appeared on the market offering mainly own-brand products at a lower price than brands.

In the 1960s, hypermarkets with even larger sales areas and often located outside the city centres appeared in Europe. The first hypermarket was opened in Belgium and the concept soon spread across Europe. Hypermarkets are characterised by a large product variety and competitive pricing. Besides food, they offer houseware, electronic consumer goods, car accessories and gardening supplies, for example.

An example of this development can be seen in the United Kingdom. At the start of the 1960’s, Britain had 572 supermarkets, and by 1969 this had grown to 3,400. Today there are over 10,000. For an interesting short documentary on the rise of the supermarket, click here.

The development of e-commerce

The introduction of the internet and smartphones has given commerce a tremendous boost in recent years.

While mail order and teleshopping had already existed for many years, online and mobile shopping offer consumers a much more convenient way of shopping by allowing them to compare easily products and prices and by making cross-border purchases in a safe technological environment.

The trend leans towards multi-channel trading, whereby online merchants open stationary shops and more and more traditional retailers and wholesalers offer their products via online shopping platforms.

The Covid-19 pandemic acted as an accelerator for online sales, as e-commerce quickly responded to the challenges of the Covid pandemic by ensuring continued access to producers and services to consumers. But consumers, many of whom had not gone online before, have seen the utility and convenience of e-commerce. The consumer journey has completely changed: our customers expect to be able to use various combinations of online and offline interaction. E-commerce has increased competition and fragmentation in online offerings, with new models such as quick commerce. Nevertheless, physical stores will continue to play a major, but somewhat different role, offering experiences and expert advice.

More about the History of retail on Wikipedia.