The History of Retail in 100 Objects

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From “Shopper as Hunter Gatherer” in pre-history, to Holostores (holographic-enhanced environments) in the near future, the “History of Retail in 100 Objects” puts the “tale” into “retail” over the past 10,000 years.

Inspired by the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects”, Editor David Roth* curated the list and associated book, website and podcasts. It contains items that are both marvelous and mundane, but every single article has had (or will have) a profound impact upon our industry.

The narrative arc takes the reader through six separate phases of history – Cave Man (Pre-history), Neolithic Period (8,000 to 2,000 BC), Early Trading (2,000BC to 1600), 18th and 19th Centuries (1700 to 1900), 20th and 21st Centuries (1901 to Now), and finally The Future (2013 to 2023). Along the way, major turning points are marked such as the introduction of money and its transition from cowrie shells to coins, and the advent of mass production.

What I found particularly fascinating were the origins of objects we now take for granted.

For instance, “the humble price tag…was a major development in the evolution of retail”, according to Roth and his contributors. Thought to be introduced in department stores around the mid 19th century, price tags were an early form of what we call “price transparency” today. Once upon a time it was truly revolutionary to openly display products with the price there for all to see.

The cash register too, first patented in 1883, was once an object of wonder. Its invention though, was not for the convenience of customers, but to keep employees honest…allowing the shopkeeper to maintain track of sales and receipts and help lessen fraud.

Even the clothes hanger was once a clever innovation, not something that is an accepted part of the retail landscape. Roth tells us that there have been over 200 patents for hangers, including reputedly one by US President Thomas Jeffersen. One of the most familiar iterations was brought into life by an Albert Parkhouse in Michigan, who “bent a piece of wire into two ovals, with ends twisted together to form a hook.” A men’s apparel store in Grand Rapids – Meyer May – was credited as the first to put merchandise on hangers.

The final section of “100 Objects” is dedicated to items “not yet invented/commercialised”. Besides Holostores, there are Intelligent Shelves, Smart Clothing and Sentient Stores, which will sense, respond and adapt to customer needs.

For anyone interested in retail, the “History of Retail in 100 Objects” is a must-read. You can access the website, book and podcast for free at

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