Until a little more than a century ago, the buying and selling of merchandise was relatively uncomplicated. Industrial concerns usually acquired or purchased local components for the goods they produced. Retail-store owners periodically would travel to major seaports and manufacturing centers to purchase products for later resale. Retail stores generally could be divided into two kinds: small shops specializing in one type of merchandise and general stores featuring a great variety of goods. In addition, itinerant peddlers served customers in outlying areas by selling goods from house to house.

The earliest wholesalers in the United States probably were the ship chandlers, or suppliers, in New England who assembled goods required by merchant and military ships. Ship owners found that a centralized supply source enabled them to equip vessels quickly. With the introduction of mass-production and mass-marketing techniques in the 19th century, wholesaling became a vital component of the buying and selling process. Individual manufacturers found they could sell more efficiently through the use of a wholesaler. Retail buyers found it more convenient to deal with a few sources of supply rather than hundreds of organizations.

In the 1850s and 1860s, U.S. retailing experienced immense growth. Chain organizations such as the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company were established. Such firms as Macy’s and Marshall Field’s grew into sizable department stores. The introduction of low postal rates gave rise to large, mail-order firms, such as Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck. F. W. Woolworth organized another familiar type of retailing, the five-and-ten-cent store, better known today as the variety store.

Following World War I, self-service was introduced in the clothing and accessories fields and in the grocery business. In self-service stores, the merchandise and displays, rather than salespeople, were used to induce customers to buy. Horse-drawn streetcars and, later, electrified streetcars brought people to central locations in cities to do their shopping.

The movement of people to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s stimulated the creation of a new type of merchandising: the one-stop shopping center. These were smaller than, but similar to, today’s malls, where all types of merchandise were located in an easily accessible area. Ample parking space generally was available. At the same time, some large department stores, specialty stores, and mass merchandisers, aware that suburban customers no longer made frequent shopping trips to the city, established branch stores in the suburbs.

Today, one-stop shopping has been pushed to the extreme, with mega malls that include retail stores, food courts, and entertainment centers. Independent retailers in small cities and towns have been replaced by superstore chains that carry virtually every type of merchandise from groceries to clothing, hardware to bicycles, all under one roof. At the same time, online shopping has made it possible to purchase almost anything without having to leave home.

In the past few decades, manufacturing of products has declined and the service industry has increased. Printing, pest control, telecommunications, computer maintenance, lodging, and transportation are among a huge variety of services that employ sales forces. Originally, services sales were accomplished through individual contact with potential buyers. That method is still used today, along with direct mail, telephone, the Internet, and print and media advertising. Both product sales and services sales are closely connected with the advertising, printing, mailing, transportation, and broadcast industries.