What is retail? I don’t want to sound too philosophical but in recent years, when more often than not the word has come attached to ‘dead’, ‘apocalypse’ or something equally demoralising or ominous, an examination of what retail really represents might be necessary.

So here’s what retail isn’t. It isn’t the big names that dominate the headlines. It isn’t even the great British high street. Our ideas today about what retail is and what it means — mass-produced items, identikit shopping streets, shelves upon shelves of similar products — have not been with us for very long.

For most of the history of human civilisation, retail has been about far more than selling goods.

Selling is only the nominal function of marketplaces and high streets

Barter systems using cows, camels and sheep as currency might have come first. But the essence of retail has its origins in the first, primitive bazaars of Persia and the wider Middle East. These began outside the city walls and then moved into long alleys, shaded from the sun, stretching from one town or city gate to another.

Many great cities developed alongside bazaars. They were often the beating heart of these places. Here, people would not only trade goods such as spices, perfumes and fabrics. Social classes would mingle and gossip would be shared. They would often be sites of cultural exchange.

Even today in Iran, bazaars are centres of social, cultural, religious and political activity.

Different incarnations of this same idea sprang up elsewhere. The Ancient Greeks had the agora, a political, social and commercial ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering place’. The Romans had the forum, some of them so well-developed they had multiple levels and permanent shopfronts.

Always there were a variety of people and always a variety of activities as well as goods.

In these public spaces, and in the high streets that came into being in the 17th century, people could expect to have experiences. There was novelty, guaranteed by the diversity of goods and people selling them, and a sense of discovery.

Selling is only the nominal function of marketplaces and high streets, which is why even today, there are people who remember (and lament the loss of) the personality and community flavour of the shopping streets of their day. Absence of personality is why Starbucks insists on knowing your name — even if they sometimes misspell it.

Rise of the chain store

The uniformity we’ve become accustomed to only entered retail in the past 100 years. The consumerism of the 1980s put the emphasis squarely on the items themselves and what they said about the buyer, and took the focus away from the experience of buying them.

The primacy of the customer experience started to fade, and in the decades that followed products became increasingly homogeneous. Then, with the rise of the internet and ecommerce in particular, simple buying became the domain of the web.

Since online buying is almost always cheaper, convenient and reliable, why would anyone bother putting their shoes on and leaving the house?

Retail isn’t dead: it’s returning to its roots. And the retailers that offer something interesting and discoverable will succeed

Retailers need to rekindle their sense of history. They need to offer something more than simply a product for sale. Retail isn’t dead: it’s returning to its roots. And the retailers that offer something interesting and discoverable will succeed.

We’ve seen Toms put VR headsets in stores to ‘transport’ their customers to Peru and see how their money is helping others. We saw Samsung partner with WeWork to create customer care centres. The House of Vans even built a skatepark in the tunnels under Waterloo Station. Designed to be a physical manifestation of the brand, the space includes a cinema and gallery.

This represents an opportunity for the retailer to be creative, to do something that separates itself from the pack. Special events and tailored experiences are helping independent retailers stand out while their bigger counterparts flounder, but there’s no reason why chains and established stores can’t do the same thing.

Nike, the world’s most recognisable sportswear brand, has tested tech-driven shopping features and pop-up stores, with global stores VP Kathy Sparks declaring “retail isn’t dead, boring retail is dead”.

In a time of economic hardship in the sector, it would perhaps be too much to tell retailers to celebrate the changes taking place. But it might not be too much to say that out of these circumstances, a bolder, more fluid, more original high street might emerge – and that’s a good thing.

Retail Week Live 2019

John Buni is speaking at Retail Week Live on March 27, at London’s InterContinental O2 hotel.

To check out the packed programme, and book your tickets, click here.