From retail to e-tail


December 2017

From retail to e-tail

The English word “retail” has come a long way from its first recorded use, sometime in the 14th century. It comes from the Old French verb retaillier which means “to cut, trim”; thus, a retail was a “piece cut off, shred, scrap” and the word gradually acquired the sense of “selling in small quantities or parcels”.


ack in the 14th century, however, this “selling in small quantities” did not take place in shops as we would recognise them today. Tradesmen would sell their wares to customers directly from their workshops, or from a stall at a weekly market. It’s easy to imagine that the more successful among them might decide that business would be better served by sparing their customers the noise, smells and dirt of the workshop, and choose to conduct their transactions elsewhere – in an adjoining porch or lean-to, for example (German Schuppen = shed, French échoppe = booth or stall). And that is, possibly, how our shops evolved.

Of course, in American English the word “shop” more frequently designates a workshop, while “store” is preferred for the traditional retail outlet. This one’s easy: it comes from the Latin instaurare, to renew, in the sense of keeping goods fresh while in storage. The term “boutique”, now understood to be a rather fancy kind of shop, has a similar history, though it comes through Greek rather than Latin – apotheke: storehouse.

These days, the route by which goods are transferred from the person who makes them to the person who will ultimately use them is generally less direct and more intangible, particularly where manufactured goods are concerned. It’s not simply a matter of stepping into a leather-worker’s workshop and asking for a belt. And the experience of shopping doesn’t necessarily involve any shops. This was already the case in the mid-20th century, when the concepts of “telemarketing” and “telesales” began to take off. The tele- part (from Ancient Greek tele: at a distance, far from) was perhaps originally intended to gloss over the more unglamorous aspects of the sales role by association with the excitingly modern telephone. However, it probably didn’t take anyone long to realise that sales were still sales.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the magical letter “e” (for “electronic” – which now sounds almost endearingly old-fashioned) was pressed into service to rebrand the supposedly obsolescent concepts of sending letters (email), reading books (ebooks and e-readers), stashing your money (e-banking) and selling stuff (e-commerce and etail).

The fact is that books are still books, and money is still money; all that has changed is the medium by which they are delivered and exchanged, and even that is, in most cases, just an additional option, rather than a replacement. The “tele-” and the “e-” (and, for Apple, the “i-”) are like little lexical helium balloons designed to self-consciously lift words out of the material and onto a more ethereal plane. The fact that we often feel obliged to add the qualifiers “brick-and-mortar” or “dead trees” or “snail (mail)” shows that those little balloons are already unnecessary. Retail is still “the sale of goods to the public in relatively small quantities for use or consumption”, regardless of whether the customer is in a wood-panelled boutique in the Place Vendôme or on their iPad, in their pyjamas.