A brief history of shopping

As shoppers flock to the sales on the day now known as 'Black Friday', Julian Humphrys serves up a brief history of our shopping culture...

This article was first published in December 2015.

Britain’s first self-service supermarket, Sainsbury’s in Croydon, opened in 1950

Where is Britain’s oldest shop?

The site with the strongest claim appears to be the Boxford Stores in the Suffolk village of that name. Records suggest that this partly medieval building has been open for business in one form or other since the reign of Henry V.

If you want to see what a medieval shop might have looked like, check out the merchant’s house in French Street in downtown Southampton. Built at the end of the 13th century for a local wine merchant, it features a vaulted cellar for stock, accommodation for the family and a shop at the front of the property.

When did shopping malls arrive?

The shopping mall has a surprisingly long history. London’s Royal Opera Arcade, completed in 1818, and Burlington Arcade (1819) sought to woo well-to-do shoppers away from the city’s muddy, crowded streets into a more genteel environment.

Looking back even further, the trading floor of London’s Royal Exchange, opened by Elizabeth I in 1571, was in 1660 surrounded by a two-storey shopping mall featuring 100 kiosks and shops.

Was Selfridges the first department store?

Though Harry Selfridge’s Oxford Street store, opened in 1909, was perhaps the first to sell shopping as a pastime rather than a chore, Britain’s first true department store had begun trading over a century earlier. Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine, which opened on Pall Mall in 1796 with four departments selling furs and fans; haberdashery; millinery; and jewellery, ornaments and perfume.

When did we go self-service?

Though the world’s first true self-service store – the intriguingly named Piggly Wiggly – opened in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the idea caught on in Britain. Sainsbury’s first self-service store opened in Croydon in 1950. As Alan Sainsbury found out to his cost, the concept wasn’t universally popular. When one customer realised that the days of simply handing over a shopping list were numbered, she reputedly showed her disapproval by taking the wire basket she’d been given and throwing it at him.  

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