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How Retail Design Has Evolved Over The Years

Retail spaces have existed ever since humans first began to trade livestock and produce for other essential goods, way back in 9000 BC. In fact, despite the amazing level of sophistication of some stores today, the basic concept of reserving a space for the selection and exchange of goods and money remains the same.

Some might even argue that the pop-up stalls we see in today’s high streets are little different from the markets of Ancient Rome. The street market in ancient cultures was not only a place of commerce, but a social space, where people caught up with gossip, made new contacts, and even conducted the business of government.

All this seems a world away from the large functional supermarkets we are familiar with today, which have carefully optimised customer journeys for maximum sales and minimum ‘loitering’ time. However, in the wake of the massive surge to online shopping that occurred during the pandemic, in-person stores are rethinking their purpose.

Until the early 20th century, the majority of shops were small family run businesses. Many of them were general stores, which sold everything from groceries to stamps and toys. They often felt like welcoming and personal spaces, and the store owners handed down the shop through generations, and were pillars of the local community.

The mid-century brought the rise of the department store in the larger towns and cities, which saw the first evolution of retail as a leisure and lifestyle concept. They were aspirational places, where people could see the latest home décor styles, clothing fashions, and household appliances.

The department store was also the innovator of the ‘interactive’ space, that retail stores are now returning to today. Customers could watch real life demonstrations of products, attend talks and lectures, and watch fashion shows and entertainment displays.

Another important innovation from this time was the rise of the shopping mall, both as outdoor plazas and multi-level indoor spaces. They were designed as destinations, with cafes, restaurants, and snack bars and seating to encourage shoppers to make a day of it. Many are also near leisure facilities such as cinemas and bowling alleys.

In the USA, the first so called big box, or retail shed, stores began to open in the 60s and 70s. They were often located on the outskirts of towns, catering for a new generation of motorists. The focus was on efficiency and convenience, rather than a personal or aspirational service.

In the UK, out of town shopping centres have been a factor in the decline of the traditional high street.  Now, these malls themselves are under threat, along with most other types of bricks-and-mortar store, as a new generation of consumers is comfortable with ordering items on line.

Retail design is having to reinvent itself once again for the modern era. The focus is once again returning to the concept of a store as a community hub, with links to the local area. They are also strongly linked to the store’s online presence, working with it, rather than against it. It’s an exciting and creative time for interior store design.

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