Retail Disruption—Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Historical growth has always, historically and across industries, come from tackling consumer friction. . . .

—from Topple, by Ralph Welborn and Sunaj Pillai

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alibaba’s Jack Ma are hardly the first entrepreneurs to disrupt retail. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward and his partner, George Thorne, thought they had a way to make it easier for rural customers to access a wider range of products at better prices—a general merchandise catalog.

In the post–Civil War era in the United States, city dwellers could shop at department stores and other outlets. Rural residents weren’t so lucky. Their only option was to buy from small, local merchants. These merchants stocked ...

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