Discount Retail

Delivery truck model, 2012

Walmart became the nation’s largest retailer by mastering logistics. The company tracked sales data, product distribution, and even trucks in a “just in time” system.

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Big box stores rose in importance and became the mainstay of the American consumer economy. Using scanners, telecommunications, and computer data analysis, retailers predicted customers’ needs and managed supply chains. Attracted by low prices, consumers bought more goods. Critics worried that dropping prices lowered wages at home and abroad.

Children’s pajamas, 1996

Offshore production lowered manufacturing costs, but could be considered exploitation. Haitian garment workers earned six cents for every $19.99 pair of “101 Dalmatians” pajamas.

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Codes of conduct, about 1995

Manufacturers and retailers who worried about poor conditions in subcontractors’ factories issued codes of conduct. Enforcement was uneven.

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Cutting instructions, 2002

Cutting instructions, 2002

Electronic communication and inexpensive transportation made it easy for companies to design and market products in the U.S. but manufacture them wherever labor was cheapest.

Container seal, 1999

Fast, secure, and inexpensive containerized shipping made global production easier. To open a container, the security seal was cut off.

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Scanning gun, about 1996

In 2011 nearly one out of five Americans worked in retail. The adoption of barcode scanning helped management speed check out, track inventory, and predict customer desires. For workers, the new productivity meant fewer jobs

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Screenshot of the Global Era digital labels interactive displayWould you like to learn even more about these objects and other related stories? Click on the screenshot above to open an interactive display in a new window.