Retail stores have changed dramatically through the years. And the change has not been all positive for retailers. In fact, more than 7,000 stores closed in 2017 alone.
But while much has been made of the “retail apocalypse,” some physical stores are still thriving around the country. And many of them could potentially benefit from insights from their predecessors.
Before the days of online shopping, retailers used tactics like personal service and unique displays to gain the attention of shoppers. And with some small adjustments, many of those tactics are still relevant today.
These vintage photos offer a glimpse back at some of the trends and features of retail stores from decades past. Some simply offer a contrasting view to the retail world of today. But others may even offer lessons that are relevant for current business owners.
Retail stores in the past were well known for providing personal service to customers, including tailoring custom clothes like this image in a men’s clothing store in New York City. Today, this is one aspect that retail businesses can use to set themselves apart from online competitors that offer lower prices.
Today, online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon and Etsy reign supreme. And some shoppers also frequent temporary marketplaces like flea markets or farmers markets where groups of retailers can sell their wares to shoppers in one convenient, central location. However, in past years, there were plenty of permanent marketplaces at physical retail locations around the country, like the one pictured here in Brooklyn.
Shopping districts like this one in Boston also remain a popular concept in the retail world. Shops are located in different buildings, but usually on a single street or a few city blocks. Though these areas may have been a bit more popular in the past, business districts remain very prevalent in many cities and communities.
Large department stores like this one in New York are still in existence today. But many have struggled and closed in recent years due mainly to high costs and online competition.
However, not all shops were located in busy marketplaces or downtown districts. Past years also saw many more small neighborhood stores that carried basic essentials for people in those areas. This concept isn’t nearly as popular today, as prominent business districts and same-day shipping from online retailers like Amazon have decreased the need.
A lot of stores in the past served multiple purposes. For example, this store in Staten Island also featured a soda fountain. This made the location a very popular destination for those who lived nearby.
Some stores find more success by only selling one specific type of item, like this old tackle store from Ohio.
This image from a country store in Upstate New York depicts customers and workers playing a game together. Not a common sight in today’s stores, the idea of customers hanging out in a retail store could be relevant to current businesses. Creating a pleasant customer experience like this one is essential.
Mobile businesses have been around for decades. This image depicts a traveling general store in Arkansas where customers could essentially buy items from a truck. This gave businesses the opportunity to go directly to customers for added convenience.
The idea of small kiosks or retail stands like this one has also been around for generations. These small stands give businesses a simple and low-overhead way to target high-traffic areas.
Second Hand Stores
People have always needed ways to save money and to get rid of unwanted items. Second hand stores, including this one in Ohio, are still popular today.
Retailers have always been fairly savvy when it comes to placing impulse purchases near the checkout area. Customers who come in to shop for specific items may increase their overall spend when they see offers like “take home complete meals,” as this image depicts. This is still a major selling point for tons of stores today.
The overall design and decor of a store’s interior can also make an impact on the customer experience. This image from Detroit provides a glimpse at what an old men’s clothing store looked like on the inside.
Retail stores have always needed to showcase products in practical and visually appealing ways. Today, retail displays have gotten much more sophisticated. Brands create signage and stand-out shelving to make their items stand out. But in the past, stores like the one pictured here still made a point to arrange products neatly on shelves to make things appealing and simple for shoppers.
Of course, displays were also a big part of attracting customers into stores in the first place. Window displays like this one from a store in Oklahoma were essential for showing off products in unique and enticing ways. Today, window displays are still an important feature for many retail stores. But they also have the option of targeting nearby consumers with tactics like local SEO and hyper local mobile alerts.
Exterior signage like the pictured sign from this jewelry store in New York is also an essential part of reaching customers. Physical stores still use signs today, though the style and quality have changed through the years.
Stores have also used additional signage for years to share information about specials or selling points. This photo shows a store owner with a sign from Louisiana.
The holidays have always been a major boon for retail businesses. Though 60 percent of shoppers now purchase holiday gifts online, shoppers of yesteryear had to visit local department stores and independent retail shops. Holiday shopping in those days was a major event, even more so than it is today. Shops were decked out with tons of in-store decor, visits with Santa, popular gift specials and festive events throughout the season.
Sales have always been a hugely important concept for retail businesses. Shoppers are always trying to get the most possible value for their money. In the past, retail businesses at markets and busy downtown areas, like those pictured here in the Washington Market, had to advertise their sales mainly on physical signage near their location. Today, sales may appear online, in print materials and in mobile apps. But the basic concept of offing short-term special prices hasn’t really changed much through the years.
Though shoppers remain just as price conscious today as they have been in past years, the exact prices of items have changed dramatically. The prices pictured here are mainly for grocery and food items. But prices have gone up steadily for a huge array of items throughout every decade. Of course, general inflation is the major issue. But the increases still may seem notable for today’s shoppers.
This image shows an Illinois storefront that has been shuttered. Retail closures have been a major talking point of the last few years. But it’s certainly not a new concept. It takes a fair amount of money, skill and planning to run a successful retail business, no matter the era.
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