History of Merchandising: How Strategies Have Changed

Adeel Qayum - Writer for Fast Simon
By Adeel Qayum
Michelle Meyer - Editor for Fast Simon
Edited by Michelle Meyer
Oli Kashti - Writer and Fact-Checker for Fast Simon
Fact-check by Content writer and fact-checker Oli Kashti

Updated May 15, 2024.

A woman sitting on a couch using a laptop computer to shop online with other shopping bags already arranged next to her feet

When you think of merchandising, you probably think of a modern-day storefront that's online or brick-and-mortar. But what many people don't realize is that the history of merchandising goes back to ancient times. Even in the cradle of civilization, bustling bazaars and vibrant trade routes depended on core merchandising principles to sell and exchange goods. Below, we explore the history of merchandising and how strategies have changed through 3 main periods:

  • Ancient roots of merchandising
  • Golden age of brick-and-mortar retail
  • Digital revolution and eCommerce merchandising
Infographic depicting the history of merchandising as a timeline

Ancient Roots of Merchandising

Merchandising and trade go hand in hand—and trade can be traced back to the earliest human civilizations, like Mesopotamia and Egypt. These ancient cultures laid the foundation for commerce and trade practices that continue to shape and influence merchandising as we know it today.

Just picture it: lively marketplace scenes that go on for miles. Packed bazaars adorned with exotic goods. Buzzing trade routes connecting villagers from distant lands. In these environments, sellers used different merchandising strategies to make sure their businesses were noticed and patronized:

  • Visual display: Merchants skillfully displayed their wares, enticing customers with colorful textiles, fragrant spices, and precious metals.
  • Product demonstrations: Merchants often demonstrated the quality and usefulness of their wares to prospective buyers. For example, they might showcase the durability of a tool.
  • Bartering and haggling: Buyers and sellers engaged in lively interactions and negotiations until a mutually agreeable exchange was reached.

Golden Age of Brick-and-Mortar Retail

A mall filled with lots of people walking around

Fast forwarding through the medieval period, Renaissance, and Industrial Revolution gave rise to trade fairs, printed materials, mass production, and department stores. The result of these advancements is the 20th century, when brick-and-mortar retail was at its high point. Specialty stores, supermarkets, and grand shopping malls lured in shoppers with:

  • Impeccable visual displays
  • Captivating store layouts
  • Unforgettable in-store promotions

From the bright lights and shiny floors of department stores to the cozy atmosphere of mom-and-pop shops, there was something for everyone. Shoppers loved to browse through aisles of merchandise, interact with friendly salespeople, and take home new purchases. Brick-and-mortar retailers understood the importance of creating a memorable shopping experience, and they went to great lengths to make sure that their customers felt special.

The golden age of brick-and-mortar retail may be over, but the impact it left on our consumer culture still lives on. Up to 85% of US consumers are returning to in-store shopping to rekindle the physical shopping experience.

What does this mean for online retailers?

A bigger investment in omnichannel merchandising can help sellers to give their customers the right engagement at the right time. Seamless integration of online and offline shopping experiences is crucial and allows customers to move fluidly between various channels and touchpoints.

» Explore more differences between eCommerce vs retail merchandising

Digital Revolution and eCommerce Merchandising

A monitor, laptop, tablet, and smartphone against a white background

The digital revolution led to a massive shift in the retail industry, giving rise to the booming world of eCommerce. With the birth of online platforms, traditional brick-and-mortar stores faced new challenges and opportunities. Merchandising strategies swiftly adapted to the online landscape, leveraging technology to enhance customer experiences. This includes:

  • Data analytics: A powerful tool that provides valuable insights into consumer behavior, preferences, and trends. Today's retailers harness this information to refine their merchandising approaches and create tailored shopping experiences for each customer.
  • User-generated content (UGC): Reviews, ratings, and social media interactions influence purchasing decisions. Savvy retailers integrate UGC into their product displays and promotional campaigns, building trust and engaging with their customer base.

The digital revolution disrupted traditional retail, but it also opened up new doors. Retailers can reach global audiences, operate 24/7, and leverage targeted marketing strategies. The boundaries between physical and digital worlds blurred, making way for concepts like click-and-collect and showrooming.

» Need more merchandising guidance? Follow these eCommerce merchandising do's and don'ts

  • Upselling and cross-selling Upselling encourages customers to purchase a higher-priced item, while cross-selling suggests complementary products. In a physical store, a salesperson skillfully recommends a pricier version or additional products at the checkout counter. But in eCommerce, personalized recommendations and "Customers who bought this also bought [x]" sections take center stage.
  • Product bundling Product bundling involves grouping related items together and selling them as a package at a discounted price. For example, a hardware store may bundle gardening tools, fertilizers, and seeds to entice gardening enthusiasts. Similarly, an online grocery store may offer a pantry essentials kit with snacks and certain dry, bottled, or canned staples.
  • Personalization Personalization means customizing shopping experiences to match customers' preferences. In a physical store, salespeople can remember and suggest suitable products during future visits. In eCommerce, algorithms analyze customers' browsing and purchase history to deliver tailored product recommendations. Imagine an online bookstore suggesting books based on your favorite titles or preferred genres.
  • Influencer marketing Influencer marketing involves collaborating with individuals who have a substantial public following and leveraging their reach to promote your brand. In traditional retail, a beauty store might partner with a local influencer and host a meet & greet to attract customers. In eCommerce, a cosmetics brand may partner with a beauty vlogger to promote products via Instagram or TikTok.

The Future of Merchandising

It's easy to live our day-to-day lives without realizing how deeply ingrained the history of merchandising is in the fabric of society. From ancient trading routes to the golden age of brick-and-mortar to the digital revolution of automated tools and technologies, merchandising grows and morphs along with us.

Merchandising practices have continuously adapted to meet changing consumer demands and technological advancements. It's critical to understand the history of merchandising if you truly want to inform effective strategies in the present and future retail landscape.

» Keep an eye on these future merchandising trends to stay ahead of your competition