There have been four eras of modern retail.
Catalog era. In 1888 the Sears catalog begins. In 1896 the United States begins rural free delivery. Companies can mail catalogs directly to their customers and customers could mail their orders. It’s an important step in the Reconstruction Era. In 1908 the Sears kit house appeared. By 1915 the Sears catalog peaked in size.
City era. By 1929 half of Sears’ orders are retail rather than catalog. Americans migrate to cities. Stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward get in front of them. Sears buys radio station WLS and locates stores in downtown areas. “Window shopping” begins.
Suburbs era. Americans move again. Following World War II, Americans seek space and the automobile allows it. At the time Walter Cronkite noted, “When [Eisenhower] approved and pushed through Congress this great interstate highway network that we now have, he changed the entire face of America.” Sam Walton opens his first store in 1945. The American mall begins in 1950, a decade later there are almost five thousand. By 1975 malls account for 33% of all retail sales.
Internet era. In 1994 K-mart reaches its peak store count and Amazon.com begins. Though digital, early websites are niches of catalogs or newspapers: classifieds, shoes, clothes, used goods, and so on.
How a business distributes to customers affects how a business succeeds. The four eras of modern retail demonstrate how the placement of goods and services changed over time.
A niche of the internet era, DTC, is a modern example of how the terms change. The DTC placement is, or used to be, quite cheap. Businesses warehoused goods away from expensive city centers or suburbs. Or dropshipped across the Pacific Ocean. They didn’t worry about fighting for shelf space when public and private and last-mile couriers were happy to work for them.
DTC brands also succeeded because they chose good products. Glasses, rings, clothes, razors, and makeup are all easy to ship, similar in scope, and don’t expire. They’re also products with favorable margins.
Lastly, the internet provided unique promotion opportunities. The internet allowed cheap websites and cheap – though growing expensive – advertising on social media sites. There were no gatekeepers and they told their story on podcasts and in videos.
What’s the next era? No one knows. What’s the question to ask? That’s easy. Where are my customers and how do I talk with them?
There’s a longer look at the four eras here: From farm to city to suburb to circuit.