By Nathan Barton
Once upon a time, a customer walked into a grocery store, went to the counter, and told a clerk what she wanted. The clerk would rush hither and yon, gather the goods, weigh and tag them, then use a pencil and pad to calculate the bill. The customer would pay in coins or bills. Then she more than likely would then go to a meat market, a dairy, a bakery, vegetable and fruit stands, a drygoods store, and a drugstore, to buy the other things she wanted. Those other businesses were similarly run.
But we humans just can’t leave things alone!
An example of a recent innovation in sales and marketing – ammo by the pound.
Sometime in the mid-20th Century, we got “self-service” stores. The customer pushed a cart around the store to choose what she wanted to buy, how much, and what brand and quality. This had many advantages: cost, convenience, and marketing. And the modern supermarket and “hyper-market” emerged: one-stop for groceries, meat, veggies, fruit, drugs, and clothing and other drygoods. The modern WalMart or Target come to mind.
There were, of course, some disadvantages. Shoplifting, for instance. In the past. And the stores are big – huge! And often impersonal. And big chains drove local merchants out of business. More and more, businesses were located in a very limited location: the local market town’s “downtown” business district. (In larger communities, you might have some neighborhood stores, but farmers and ranchers, and even those who lived in “suburbs” might have to travel a fair distance to buy many things.)
This changed, as businesses responded to competition and customer demands. Specialty stores (shops) became department stores and then discount stores. Other businesses (like service stations) carried more and more products not directly related to automobiles, and evolved into the modern convenience store. Home delivery was replaced (somewhat) by the convenience of drive-thru stores.
Unfortunately, the concentration of business in just a few areas was institutionalized by the invention of zoning and the planning power of local governments. And crime and other threats (and economics) led to small towns, and often inner-city neighborhoods, losing most if not all of their retail outlets.
Technology also caused changes: the original, mechanical cash registers eliminated much of the need for paper and pencil (and math skills). Technology has progressed much since then: scales connected to the register, the use of scanning technology, the advent of credit cards and better and better ways of reading them, and so forth. And delivery by railroad and wagon was replaced by trucks and even aircraft (for fresh fruits and vegetables). Refrigeration and freezing played a part. So did branding: well-known “big name” brands were seen as evidence of quality and consistency, whether we are talking Quaker Oats, Tyson Chicken, Folgers Coffee, or Pepsi-Cola. (Seen as evidence, but a lot of us have our doubts.)
Inflation (caused by stupid government policies) played a role as well: as costs went up, businesses and consumers sought ways to contain costs and keep prices low. Sometimes this was done by consolidation and ever larger chains and producers. Other times it was done by going back to old ideas, like bulk packages, “store brands” and generic products.
We lost things too: the local packing plant (and often, even the local butcher) went away. Even fairly large urban areas no longer have large commercial bakeries. Warehouses for food (and other goods) consolidated and consolidated again, and stores went more and more to “just-in-time” inventories, especially of semi-durable and perishable products. Today, it may not be uncommon to haul a quart of milk or a loaf of bread 300-400 miles one-way from where it is bottled or baked to point of sale.
(Oddly, now we have come full-circle, in some ways. More and more stores are offering “we shop for you” services – with pickup or even home delivery -UPS or DoorDash, for instance. And of course, Amazon (and its few competitors) offer even more convenience and variety than brick-and-mortar stores.)
There have been many more changes, caused by technology, economics, and government meddling. Cash? Not on-line, really. And more and more stores try to avoid cash – or even checks: plastic or tapping your phone is more and more preferred. Products once readily available in multiple places are now only available from a few stores or providers. (Guns and ammo are one such.) Laws and regulations prevent us from buying many drugs, or only with permission. Although we might have our choice of fifty different soft drinks, our local choice of new car brands or even brands of clothing can be very restrictive (especially in small towns and rural areas). And it may not be possible to locally buy cloth and sewing supplies or other once-common items.
This meandering through a brief history of buying and selling has a point.
All of this is made possible because we have enjoyed a free market. For more than a century – indeed, two centuries plus. And even better, a free society. For the most part. Not just “a free market” but THE most free market in history, and THE largest free market (free trade) area in history, here in the Fifty States (and really, for most of that time, including Mexico and Canada as well). Even WITH the growing power and meddling actions of government, we’ve had it pretty good.
I submit that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to separate a free market from a free society. At least for very long. For a long time, we’ve had a relatively free society and a relatively free market. Even with recent changes.
In large part that is because human ingenuity (especially but not just in the form of technology) has outpaced the ability of people to mess it up. Especially the ability of government to mess it up.
But can it last? That is a subject to be addressed later.