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Retailing is a vital commercial activity, providing customers with an opportunity to purchase goods and services from various types of merchants. The first retail outlets in America were trading posts and general stores. At trading posts, goods obtained from Native Americans were exchanged for items imported from Europe or manufactured in other parts of the country. As villages and towns grew, trading posts developed into general stores and began to sell food, farm necessities, and clothing. Typically run by a single person, these stores sometimes served as the post office and became the social and economic center of their communities. Since World War II, giant supermarkets, discount houses, chain stores, and shopping malls have grown in popularity. Even so, individually owned businesses thrive, often giving customers more personal and better-informed service.

Today, retail is a complex and diverse field. It involves the selling of all types of physical goods, such as automobile parts, pharmaceuticals, clothing, health care products, books, and food, as well as services, such as automobile repair or rug cleaning. There are about 4 million retail establishments in the United States. According to the National Retail Federation of the top 50 online retailers, nearly all have brick-and-mortar stores. The market research group Statista reports that total retail sales in 2019 were $5.47 trillion, with the vast majority of sales composed of in-store purchases. In 2019 e-commerce accounted for 10 percent of revenue in retail sales, compared to 7.1% in 2015. More than 29 million people in the U.S. are employed by retailers.

Since January 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the retail industry in the United States as well as throughout the world. The closures of stores and businesses to protect the health of employees have caused retail employment and revenue to fluctuate. The long-term effects of the pandemic on the retail industry are yet to be determined.

The selling of physical goods usually requires both a wholesaler and a retailer. The wholesaler is a go-between, or middleman, between producers of merchandise and retail stores. The wholesaler buys goods in large quantities directly from producers, stores the goods in warehouses, takes orders from buyers (typically retail stores), and arranges for delivery of the merchandise.

The retail field consists of supermarkets, department stores, chain stores, specialty stores, variety stores, franchise stores, mail-order houses, online merchants, and door-to-door sellers. Retail stores buy their goods from wholesalers, stock the goods, and resell them to individual consumers in small quantities. Retailers must know their customers’ needs and wants, and they must also advertise and attractively display the goods they sell.

The major functions of retailing may be divided into five categories: merchandising and buying, store operations, sales promotion and advertising, bookkeeping and accounting, and personnel. Merchandising and buying determines the assortment and amount of merchandise to be sold, displayed, or stocked in a business's shop. Store operations workers maintain the retailer’s building. Sales promotion and advertising informs customers and potential customers about the available goods and services. Bookkeeping and accounting workers keep records of money spent and received, as well as records of payrolls, taxes, and money due from customers. The personnel department staffs the store with qualified employees.

Retail business owners are entrepreneurs who start or buy their own business or franchise operations. They are responsible for all aspects of a business operation, from planning and ordering merchandise to overseeing day-to-day operations.

Retail managers are responsible for the profitable operation of retail trade establishments. They oversee the selling of food, clothing, furniture, sporting goods, novelties, and many other items depending on their business. Their duties include hiring, training, and supervising other employees, maintaining the physical facilities, managing inventory, monitoring expenditures and receipts, and maintaining good public relations. Retail managers hold about 1.55 million jobs in the United States.

Retail sales workers assist customers with purchases by identifying their needs, showing or demonstrating merchandise, receiving payment, recording sales, and wrapping their purchases or arranging for their delivery. They are sometimes called sales clerks, retail clerks, or salespeople. There are nearly 4.8 million retail salespeople employed in the United States.