Retail 101

Do you actually know what the definition of ‘retailing is? Do you know the origins of the word ‘customer’? You might think I am now getting all academic on you , but trust me there is nothing more practical than what I am going share with you.

The word ‘retail’ comes from the old-French ‘retailler’ which means ‘to cut’. As such it is related to words such as ‘tailor’. In every day English, we refer to the act of ‘bulk breaking’ as a defining activity of retailing and this is absolutely true – as per definition. (We buy in bulk and ‘cut’ into smaller pieces which are sold individually to customers.)

Which brings us to the word customer, which also has equally interesting origins.

The word’s origins date back to around 1400AD. The Old French word for costume (meaning the ‘habit’ as worn by nuns and priests in 1200 AD) also became associated with someone who regularly pays a toll or a tax (hence the word ‘customs official’) in 1325AD; when, for some inexplicable reason later switched to mean ‘buyer’.

If you add the two definitions together, you get what I consider to be the very essence of retailing – in fact a very useful and revealing framework.

A few key concepts would jump out of definitional framework – and I thought it may even be a very useful sanity check for you to see how your business model stacks up against the theoretical framework. So, if I had to define retailing in plain English,

Buy in bulk, to

Break bulk

In such a way that it is useful (wanted)

By paying people

Who would habitually (repeatedly) buy it

From that simple definition you will be able to see what the core functions of any retail operation should be:

  • Buying/ Sourcing

  • Merchandising

  • Sales & Display

  • Customer Service/Loyalty

Is your business focussed on those core activities?

Is your key metric how ‘habitually’ your customers buy from you?

Do you measure how well you buy, and not only how well you sell? (Something that is standard in chains that smaller operations should consider.)

Or at the very least, now you know something that you didn’t know before.

To this day, I have NEVER met anyone who actually knew the origins of these words. Are you the exception?

 [And if you are keen to do a quick (and cost-effective introduction to Retailing as an e-course) - you will find one here for only $3 - and that is not a typo.]


Since we are talking about Retail 101 here; how about this as an interesting exercise. I teach (casually) on the Masters of Retail program at the University of Wollongong. I have set up a semi-private blog [Masters of Retail] where I have asked the students (all international) to write at least one blog post on Retail trends that will shape the future. That should result in 20 or so posts which could be interesting reading.

If you are that way inclined and interested in this sort of topic, you could register as a member, and find the blog here. When viewing the blog you will see your own profile and you will have the option to ‘follow’ the blog – or to subscribe via RSS.

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