Is Internet Retail and Amazon Really That Different?

I keep hearing people flip out about Internet retail in general and Amazon specifically, killing Big Box and department store retail, like nobody had ever heard of it before.  But if you look at it historically, in pre automobile days, the whole idea of retail-coming-to-you is nothing new.  If you look at a reprint of the Sears catalog from the late 1800’s you could buy anything from cement mixers that made cement blocks, watches, furniture, pens to whole house kits delivered to your door.  The only difference was you ordered through the mail.  Most of America was still rural and travel was not easy.  Ordering “city quality” goods by mail order made sense.

He observed that rural customers often wanted “city” goods, but their only access to them was through rural retailers who had little competition and did not offer any guarantee of quality. Ward also believed that by eliminating intermediaries, he could cut costs and make a wide variety of goods available to rural customers, who could purchase goods by mail and pick them up at the nearest train station.

Wikipedia Montgomery Ward

See also: Wikipedia Sears.

Note in that Sears article, that Sears didn’t seriously start opening department stores until the 1920’s when the automobiles were really taking off and because of automobiles roads were starting to be paved for the first time.

In addition, in pre automobile and early automobile days, delivery of goods by local merchants was a common thing: Ice blocks for the Ice chest, groceries, dairy and produce, specialty retail like Fuller Brush salesmen.  Even services like knife sharpening came to you.  Remember, keeping house was hard physical labor, cooking alone was all from scratch with no convenience items or cooking shortcuts that we have today, so a housewife found it hard to get away and shop.  Moreover, shopping in cities meant walking to the nearest streetcar line in cities or making do at the small corner store, in the country, it meant hitching up a team of horses and journeying into town once a week.

Family story: My 4 times great-grandfather was blinded in an accident.    At some point he started making mustard and it caught on. Soon he was delivering pots of mustard to his many town and rural customers from a wagon drawn by ponies.  The story goes, the ponies knew the route and would stop at each customer’s home.

The point here is that at one time it was common for the merchant to come to you either in person, through a salesman or by catalog and postal mail.  Particularly with the catalog houses (which depended on rail service) all of this is just a short leap away from what Amazon is doing.  The technology has changed.

I’m not going to get into how bricks and mortar retail has changed other than: the suburban malls damaged High Street retail, later Big Box stores damaged suburban malls, department stores and what was left of High Street retail.  Now Internet retail has brought catalog retail shopping from the home and from your smartphone, back and it’s killing the Big Boxes.

There is more to it than that, I’m simplifying things.  But here we are, we have come…

Full circle.

Brad Enslen @bradenslen



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