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Merchants are people who make their livings by selling goods they did not produce themselves. Merchants can be distinguished from farmers, artisans, and others who create items they could sell themselves but are more likely to license to a merchant, who has the facilities and experience to deal with consumers. Merchants thus provide a vital link between those who grow, create, or assemble goods and the buying public. Historically, the merchant class was responsible for the creation of a middle class between peasants and the nobility. In modern times, merchants are most often the proprietors of establishments ranging in size from small shops to multinational chain stores, including commerce websites.
For thousands of years, people were limited to the food, clothing, and practical or recreational items they could create themselves or trade with nearby neighbors. At the dawn of recorded history, primitive human societies created the means to trade items for credits that represented the value of the items rather than bartering item for item. This was the advent of money as well as the first written records and writing itself, which was used to keep track of these credits. The first merchants focused on facilitating this exchange of goods and credit rather than producing the goods themselves.
Often these early merchants were traders who would travel great distances to bring exotic goods to areas that otherwise could not afford to import them. Another kind of merchant was the shopkeeper, who would offer a wide selection of general or specialized goods in a central location, saving customers the trouble of seeking them out. In medieval Europe, increases in trade and population allowed the merchant class to prosper, creating a middle class between the wealthy and the poor. Over the centuries, this middle class gained power, leading to the collapse of the feudal system and the rise of the first democratic governments.
In modern times, the merchant who runs a single shop has been largely supplanted by new methods of doing business. Many successful mercantile, or merchant-style, stores have expanded into chains with multiple locations in a particular region or country or even internationally. Some merchants run franchises, which are offshoots of these larger chain stores but have independent management. In the 21st century, the success of Internet commerce has allowed merchants large and small to do business online, sometimes without a brick-and-mortar store.
In modern chain stores, the role of the merchant is a nebulous one. These stores are owned by executives and stockholders who are rarely on the premises, instead hiring local managers who in turn hire staff members to handle day-to-day shop tasks. In a general sense, all of these people are merchants, but they bear little resemblance to the classic merchant of ancient times.
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