Historic trends in retail/shopping floor space
October 20, 2022 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find a definitive article / book / blog on historic trends in retail/shopping floor space (per capita seems most meaningful) from 1100* to say 1995 (internet retail muddies waters too much). Have searched a lot but all I can say so far is that retail space is rising faster than population. *1100 onward makes most sense following from Keene 2018 The property market in English towns, A.D. 1 100-1600 [link is pdf @ persee.fr - a publisher]

This is a hard problem as most terms have shifted in meaning across history e.g. shop, retail, town/urban. I think ground area dedicated to retail is what I'll find [car culture has led to sprawl but how has it affected retail ground area per se?]

I think I'm looking for what is the the 'natural' amount ground floor space per capita.

I have yet to see copies of:
Bruegmann 2005 Sprawl: A Compact History, University of Chicago Press. c1500 onwards.

Lord, Strauss & Toffler 2003 http://www.velj.org/natural-cities.html - a review of the book.

Items found and promising
Urge-Vorsatz 2020 Advances Toward a Net-Zero Global Building Sector.
posted by unearthed to Society & Culture (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think I'm looking for what is the the 'natural' amount ground floor space per capita.

I don't think you're going to have any luck; there's no such thing.

Taking a Western perspective, at the start of your time period, for the vast majority of people outside the urban centres, retail isn't something that takes space, it's something that takes time -- Tuesday is the local market day, and travelling merchants will set up in the town square, that sort of thing.

Presumably if there's a natural amount of retail space per capita, there are also natural amounts of retail space by sub categories per capita; a natural amount of book-seller space, for instance. Which is obviously false; pre-Gutenberg, book sellers basically didn't exist; Google suggests the oldest bookstore still operating dates to 1732. As paper prices dropped and literacy rose, more and more books were sold until a maximum sometime shortly before 2000, and then Amazon came and took almost all of the market and now we have 5% or 10% of the book selling space we did a generation ago.

And every market is like that; people always wear clothing but today it's all premade; a century or two ago and people are buying only the cloth and the notions; a century or two before that and the cloth is being made at home as well. The best stocked grocer of a century ago would have 1% of the foods for sale that a random suburban supermarket has.

Even within a specific category and time there's variance spatially; a suburban supermarket might have produce displays that are a single table, where urban ones have a tiered stack with more produce on offer per square foot. The UK has about half the square footage of supermarkets per capita that Canada does; in part because the UK has a lot more people living in denser urban conditions and as a result has more urban format stores. And some of that extra space is just providing extra sizes of the same brands, or twelve different flavours of Oreos; but some of that extra space is also providing organic, natural, gluten free, and halal foods; providing less-common foods specific to minority ethnic communities.
posted by Superilla at 3:22 PM on October 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yes superilla has identified the historical problem with definitions, but I'll add some more speaking as a planner/heritagist. What we identify as 'ground area dedicated to retail' is a thing that's been specifically brought into being by regulation in most societies where it exists, as a matter of deliberate zoning, law, and of designed conglomeration of uses. Also, suprisingly recently in urban history, largely in the 19th century. Sprawled malls are a consequence of car culture, true, but the previous experience of suburban lengthy strip-retail streets ('high streets' in the UK) were a consequence of bus and tram networks extending the city beyond one person's walking-distance—those long strips of shopfronts are there for the convenience of the bus network, not the shopper.

Retail at the scale where dedicated selling-spaces are needed (ones which exclude housing, manufacturing, storage, food/other consumption) is really a nineteenth-century innovation, which were specific to the consumption needs of a large middle class which hadn't existed before then; as superilla says 'shopping' took other forms and took place at designated times, on specific days, as a service in buyers' or sellers' homes, by auction, and by newspaper/mail. Novelties like department stores and arcades, and late-20thC shopping centres/malls always coexisted with other retail land use (like home based stores, shop-top housing, home sweatshops, etc.) And that previous diversity of land use is also the case with other non-retail work uses—e.g. the notion of the 'office' as a non-domestic work space is really surprisingly new, really another nineteenth century revolution.

I'd add that the history of retail and of shopping is known, by retail historians themselves, as a woefully under-researched field.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:24 PM on October 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Superilla and Fiasco da Gama, it's even more complicated (and under-researched known) than I thought. Your comments have given me some news words and ways of thinking about the problem, and helping narrow the historical period and relevant geographic areas.

Searching again (especially using 'retail history' which I'd never thought of) I found a 2002 thesis - Fixed-Shop Retailing Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton 1660-1900 by Diane Collins immensely useful, also the writer explores a shift from 1840 to separate home from shop. Collins' has only been cited once, by The Routledge Companion to the History of Retailing. This comprises "four broad sections" including "Spaces and places" & "Geographical variations". - looks promising.

Also I've found some useful urban change maps from University of Missouri Kansas City's Urban Planning + Design Studio II class

I was hoping for something definitive I could cite in public meetings (and in my work), I think I'll end up with making classified urban maps (probably starting with Shrewsbury as I know it quite well) and comparing them with shopping area catchment population at points in time - and probably discover some more partial answers along the way.
posted by unearthed at 6:56 PM on October 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

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