The earliest forms of exchange involved bartering systems. However, the advent of coinage enabled exchange to occur more efficiently and over much larger distances.
The Socratic philosophers expressed some concerns about the new type of selling in around the 4th century BCE. Their commentary was primarily concerned with the potential disruption of the more social aspects of selling. Traditional forms of exchange encouraged a social perspective – emphasizing the social bonds that united members of a society. For example, during periods of drought or famine, individuals shared in the plight of their neighbors. However, the advent of this new form of selling encouraged a focus on the individual such that in times of scarcity, sellers raised their prices.
During the Medieval period, trade underwent further changes. Localized trading based on transactional exchange and bartering systems was slowly transformed as transportation improved and new geographic markets were opened. From the 11th century, the Crusades helped to open up new trade routes in the Near East, while the adventurer and merchant, Marco Polo stimulated interest in the Far East in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Medieval merchants began to trade in exotic goods imported from distant shores including spices, wine, food, furs, fine cloth, notably silk, glass, jewelry, and many other luxury goods. As trade between countries or regions grew, trade networks became more complex, and different types of sellers filled in the spaces within the network. During the thirteenth century, European businesses became more permanent and were able to maintain sedentary merchants in a home office and a system of agents who operated in different geographic markets.
Local market traders and itinerant peddlers continued to supply basic necessities, but permanent retail shops gradually emerged from the 13th century, especially in the more populous cities. By the 17th century, permanent shops with more regular trading hours were beginning to supplant markets and fairs as the main retail outlet. Provincial shopkeepers were active in almost every English market town. These shopkeepers sold a very broad range of general merchandise, much like a contemporary general store.
Large business houses involved in import and export often offered additional services including finance, bulk-breaking, sorting, and risk-taking. In the 17th century, the public began to make mental distinctions between two types of trader; local traders (Dutch: meerseniers) which referred to local merchants including bakers, grocers, sellers of dairy products, and stall-holders, and the merchants (Dutch: koopman), which described a new, emergent class of trader who dealt in goods or credit on a large scale. With the rise of a European merchant class, this distinction was necessary to separate the daily trade that the general population understood from the rising ranks of merchants who operated on a world stage and were seen as quite distant from everyday experience.
In 18th century England, large industrial houses, such as Wedgewood, began mass-producing certain goods such as pottery and ceramics and needed a form of mass distribution for their products.