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A Historical Overview of Shopping

Shopping has been a cultural pastime for thousands of years, and was born out of necessity. Ancient peoples roamed marketplaces and bazaars where merchants and craftsmen plied their wares and earned their living. Serving as portals for access to local or worldly goods, these hubs of commerce were social gathering places where news and gossip were exchanged. They were soon found along many trade routes throughout the Middle East, and into some areas of India and Southeast Asia.

Ancient Bazaars

When Islam spread throughout the Middle East in the 4th century, shopping bazaars were formed to encourage robust commerce between foreign and domestic traders. Serving as a point of exchange, the bazaar attracted entertainers, hosted social gatherings at coffee shops, and were used for religious observances. These antiquated shopping malls were not the first of their kind, nor were they limited to the Middle East.

In Europe, China, and Japan, many cities were established along trading routes in use since before the 1st century A.D., and were the main source of edible goods and materials unavailable locally. In many cases, the luxury items these caravans brought to the bazaar or marketplace were the only source for such items; today’s equivalent would be a manufacturer who sells through a limited selection of distributors. Other unique trading roads included the ‘Incense Route,’ which was called this because of the frankincense and myrrh brought by the Southern Arabs on camel back.

Without these traveling ‘malls,’ many cities may have never been built. It can be inferred that without trade along the Silk and Spice roads stretching throughout Ancient Rome and across the Syrian Desert, the peoples of these regions would not have been integrated into larger cultures when they were, nor would they have experienced new and foreign systems of religious beliefs or ways of living. To some extent, by traveling great distances to bring goods to people and creating places to shop, the groundwork was laid for modern society and commerce.

Mail Order Shopping

Fast forward to the Homestead Act of 1862 in America, and two men would soon start a shopping business unlike any America had seen. The mail order catalog was first distributed by the postal service in 1872, and consisted of a single sheet of paper listing products from Montgomery Ward’s of Chicago. Families in rural areas gained access to a larger variety of products through mail order catalogs, and were spared the inconvenience of traveling to town to visit the general store.

Around the same time, Richard Sears was following a similar business plan. The ‘R.W. Sears Watch Company’ warranted all of their timepieces for six years, and were aided in their efforts to distribute with ‘Rural Free Delivery.’ Americans were pioneering their own form of trade route, using the postal service in place of long caravans. The Sears mail order shopping phenomenon grew, and Mr. Sears followed his initial efforts with spring and fall catalogs advertising a much wider range of products.

Sears was interested in providing Americans with every good they needed. As a result, the catalog was filled with sewing machines, firearms, horse gear, baby necessities, and clothing. At one point, customers could order entire Arts & Crafts house kits; Sears sent the kits with complete instructions and the customer assembled the home. One catalog grew to several specializing in items such as photography, building, and men’s clothing.

The percentage of people shopping by catalog may be lower than those who do their shopping at the store or on the internet, but this segment of retail commerce is one more way to exploit a cultural need to purchase necessities and the latest goods by any means.

Shopping Innovations

The mail order catalog was a shopping innovation of its time, as were ancient caravans during their time. Perhaps the greatest innovations are those that modern technology has created to provide shoppers with extreme convenience. Some of these inventions are easy to take for granted.

Consider the automatic door. A sensor signals single swinging or double sliding glass doors to open when a shopper approaches them. This invention eliminates the need to open a door, but more importantly, it makes entry and exit more convenient for people carrying handfuls of shopping bags. When these bags are carried in a shopping cart, it becomes even more practical.

Shopping carts take many forms in grocery stores and shopping malls today. There are double seat extensions with seat belts to carry toddlers, and race car shopping carts to keep children entertained. Surprisingly, the basic cart did not come into use until the 1930’s, when Sylvan Goldman put them in his chain of Oklahoma City stores. It is possible the modern shopping cart was not invented before this because people bought fewer items, but it is more likely they used carriages or wagons until this point.

Best Shopping Malls

Every major city has at least one impressive shopping center, usually in the form of a mall. From Manhattan’s Time Warner Circle to the high-end Cabazon outlets of Palm Springs, California, the shopping opportunities are diverse and accommodating. An especially inspiring shopping construction is the Wafi mall of Dubai. The pyramid shape copies ancient Egyptian architecture, and the interior houses an Egyptian quarter, a Syrian quarter, and a Moroccan Corridor styled after each country’s culture.

The Wafi at Dubai features exquisite stained glass, ornate chandeliers, and live entertainment, in addition to memorable shopping. While the Wafi is in the running for ‘greatest visual masterpiece,’ the most frequented shopping experience in the world can be found in North America, at the Mall of America. So large that hundreds of visitors get lost every year, the rectangular building covers over 2.5 million square feet. The Bloomington, Minnesota structure became a part of shopping history in August of 1992. It is second in size only to the West Edmonton mall, and will continue to expand its operations.

These shopping experiences are the modern adaptation of an ancient cultural pastime with similar characteristics. People meet to shop, dine, and celebrate together while seeking out the latest technology or fashion. Malls and shopping outlets serve a need for clothing and items of convenience, while satisfying the desire to have new and innovative material goods. As in ancient times, people today can enjoy a vibrant atmosphere full of cultural influences from around the world, with some notable differences; today’s shopping takes place while strolling inside the shelter of modern architecture and comfortable air conditioning.