This article deals with changing relations between retailing and the town. It focuses on the implications of changes that have arisen over the last thirty years and on the processes that have generated such transformations – or, to be more precise, on the role that policies may have played in the way change is conducted. The analysis examines the trend towards homogenization, on the world scale, of the way towns are being reconfigured: the development that locates large stores in distended, mono‐functional, off‐centre zones; the reshaping of neighbourhoods, which now tend to be defined solely by the notion of accessibility; town‐centre crisis and the selective rehabilitation of some town centres; and the decay of public spaces. It goes on to express reservations about the use of the term ‘Americanization’ to describe this movement, and then attempts to evaluate how far national laws and local administrations are likely to produce significant spatial, social and cultural differences. To achieve these aims, it adopts an approach that compares situations and practices from one country to another (in Europe and in North America), as well as from one town to another.