How High Streets and Retail Have Evolved Through the Years

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It is always interesting to look at photographs of your home town or area from years gone by. Trying to recognize streets and existing buildings in sepia or black and white photos is fun and it’s often extraordinary to see just how much things have changed.

The high street for many towns wasn’t just a place where people would shop, it was where you might bump into a friend, or where you might stop for breakfast in a favorite cafe.

Over the last 100 years, things have changed dramatically and high streets are not always the focal area that they used to be. Other types of retail such as ecommerce have made huge inroads and in 2020, the online retail sector has grown to take 21% of the total market.

So, how has retail evolved and where is it heading in the future?


From Mom and Pop shops…

In many regions, Mom and Pop shops still exist in large numbers. A visit to Thailand will confirm their existence and it seems that every soi or avenue has at least one little shop supplying basic goods at reasonable prices.

Mom and Pop shops is the unofficial name given to what is essentially a family-owned business. Looking at the past in any country, the first retailers were often privately owned, family-run stores. Every movie based in the Wild West depicts stores such as these and as times moved on they would be invaluable to locals wanting household items without the need to travel.

Mom and Pop shops offered more than just retail therapy though, there would be engagement between shoppers and owners, friendships and acquaintances, and possibly a bit of local gossip and news too.

The problem with small family-owned businesses is often that they get driven out by cost-cutting larger stores and rent increases. Fortunately, there are still 5.5 million family-owned businesses in the USA and they employ 98 million people. Although, not all of these are retailers of course.


To department stores

As the pandemic hit the world in 2020, many department stores were already in trouble. JCPenney and Bloomingdales are just two famous department store names that have found themselves in trouble. Part of the reason for this is they have gone out of fashion, just as Mom and Pop shops did.

When department stores first arrived in the UK and the USA, they offered a way of shopping that hadn’t been seen before. Now a family could visit a store and buy everything they needed, except for groceries, in just one place. Other things changed around this time too including the labeling.

Where Mom and Pop shops would have simple tags with handwritten prices, department stores became more sophisticated and had printed hang tags on their products, especially the clothes. These days companies such as The Dutch Label Shop produce custom hang tags like the ones you see in clothing stores everywhere.

Department stores now don’t seem so sophisticated anymore and they can sometimes be seen as a bit stuffy or antiquated. Plus, they had to compete with a new arrival.


Shopping malls arrive

In the 1950s and ’60s, shopping malls sprung up all across the states and became the go-to place for families and teenagers to spend time and money in. Shopping malls represented something more than just a place to shop.

These buildings were typically constructed out of town and required a drive to get there, meaning they became destinations rather than just shops. Hours could be spent at the mall shopping, seeing a movie, playing in an arcade, eating, or just hanging out.

Soon, another type of out-of-town store would arrive.


Walmart and other big retailers

Sometimes called big-box, at least in the states, stores such as Walmart and Kmart started a new style of retailing. Often known as hypermarkets in Europe, and in the UK they are often situated in retail parks, these retailers sell at prices that typical high street retailers cannot compete with.

These style shops quickly became popular due to their convenience and pricing. A family can visit one of these stores and get everything they need, depending on which chain they visit. In the UK, someone could visit Tesco and buy all the groceries they need, then visit B&Q next door for home improvements, then visit Toys R’ Us if needed. Many of these retail parks provide everything in one area and they are easier to visit due to convenient free parking away from town centers.


The current state of retail

In 2020, the world was hit by Covid causing a pandemic and causing turmoil in every type of industry. Retail was hit hard and sales dropped. Many independent retailers across the globe have now folded. In the UK, William Hill closed 119 shops and other high street stores have followed suit.

One area of retail that was affected positively was ecommerce. Sales increased by 44% in 2020 in the online sector and it is this way of shopping that is going to change the way people shop in the future.

Business owners are changing the way they market themselves and social media is playing a big part in how a brand grows. Retailers are waking up to why online reviews are essential for their business. Even luxury brands are using social media, and digital marketing is pushing consumers to websites instead of land-based stores.

Although shoppers will return to stores it seems unlikely that the high street and malls will see the same level of people, post-pandemic, that they enjoyed previously.


What other changes has retail seen

Online shopping may be the biggest or at least the most radical change that most have seen as far as retail is concerned. But, there have been many changes to the way people shop but most people take them as granted as they are normal now.

Cash registers were a revelation when they first arrived and decades later they would be upgraded with barcode scanners and moving conveyor belts. Now it is commonplace to see self-checkouts where the shopper does the scanning and packing themselves.

Packaging has changed too. Plastic bags are no longer given out in many countries to help protect the environment. Recycled material is used more often for boxes and other types of packaging. Labels for clothing have changed too and now they have to show a variety of information due to labeling laws and legislation. Different materials are used than in the past and designers are more creative.

Credit cards were introduced in the ’50s and changed the way people paid for goods, plus stores supplied their own lines of credit to valued customers



Moving away from the pandemic and the past, it would seem the future of retail is heading more online. There will always be a place for land-based retailers as most people enjoy some human interaction and the internet cannot replicate all the facets of shopping in a mall or a department store.

Shopping malls are dying out and the pandemic has accelerated this process. If you were a retailer wondering how to promote your fashion brand then it may seem that going online is the answer.

Consumers discovered last year that shopping online is convenient and takes no time at all compared to driving to town or traveling to a mall. How ecommerce retail evolves remains to be seen.


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Written by Lola McQuenzie

Lola is one of our busiest writer. She has worked for Catwalk Yourself since 2007. Lola started working with us after she graduating from Central St Martins

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