Lessons from Ancient Commerce

Originally published 10/17/2016 on deloitte.wsj.com. This is based off of a longer white paper.


In the early days of commerce—when marketplaces emerged, between roughly 2100 to 1800 B.C.¹—nothing stood between buyers and sellers. Transactions took place in open-air markets, and customers could ask for exactly what they wanted, advocating for themselves as necessary. Over a few millennia, however, the exchange of goods and services became more complicated. The public knowledge and sharing found within a traditional open-air marketplace slowly disappeared, and customers became increasingly distanced from the original craftspeople and their products.

Now the global marketplace has come full circle. Thanks to digital technology, the past two decades have seen a dramatic change in how people shop and engage with brands. Customers can broadcast their satisfaction—or their displeasure—in a global forum enabled by social media. Buyers have adapted readily to this environment, but not all sellers have. Ironically, the marketers who are taking full advantage of today’s marketplace aren’t doing so solely by leveraging the latest technologies. Instead, these brands are relying on time-honored strategies that date back to the days of ancient commerce.

A Brief History of Commerce and Customers

The earliest marketplaces served as community hubs where traders and tribes gathered to exchange their wares. These were democratic spaces that enabled buyers to compare products.² In this open-air market context, traders and barterers who weren’t fair or didn’t offer quality goods risked losing customer trust and sales.

Over time, intermediaries, traders, and guilds emerged to help support the artisan, a development that benefited sellers but eroded the customer’s ability to negotiate directly. The selling chain became more complicated and segmented, and sellers eventually evolved into companies with silos of information both outside and within, with very little collaboration or conversation among the siloed functions.

In the past two decades, with the rise of digital, these silos have been torn down to expose business behaviors, decisions, and interactions in a globally transparent way. The mass adoption of social media and digital commerce means that customer service and business practices have public exposure again. Customers have gained a strong voice and power over the products they purchase. Buyers interact with their peers and their favorite brands in the same social channels and expect openness and communication to be reciprocated. There is also a strong demand for mass personalization, making customer knowledge and experience all the more important to a company’s business model.

What Today’s Brands Can Learn From the First Marketplaces

To build customer relationships in this new form of open-air commerce, companies can reach out and respond in three critical ways:

Encourage consumers to engage. Early buyer-seller relationships were based on communication—a dialogue in which parties expressed their needs, discussed their terms, and negotiated to reach an acceptable outcome. Today’s selling environment, while much more complex, also requires open communication channels. Give customers multiple ways to connect, whether via phone, social networks, or in stores. Making it difficult for people to get in touch will likely backfire, as consumers can share their dissatisfaction widely on social channels.

Be prepared to provide answers and solve problems openly in the digital ecosystem. Social media monitoring can provide a first alert to major public relations issues. Have risk escalation plans in place, and identify a team to respond quickly to inquiries received through email and social channels. Empower customer service representatives with knowledge about the product, and encourage them to be brand advocates.

Personalize products and the customer experience. Back in the days of open-air markets, sellers got real-time feedback on what their customers wanted and could respond rapidly. With today’s customer experience monitoring, email, and real-time manufacturing capabilities, companies can fill a similar role. Provide—and promote—multiple options, letting buyers know how they can customize their choices. Ask customers about their preferences, and abide by those preferences the next time they visit the website or contact the call center.


For all the complications of the digital age, the relationship between buyers and sellers has returned to its simpler roots—open, direct, responsive, and personal. Organizations that survive in today’s environment will do so by changing the way they think about customer engagement. They’ll create relationships based on strong, two-way conversations—the kind that happened between early tradespeople and their customers so many years ago.

Angel Hollis Vaccaro, principal; Mark Reuter, specialist leader; Beth Kelley, research manager, Deloitte Digital.

  1. David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  2. William Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008).

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