Commerce (also sometimes called distribution services or distributive trades), comprises mainly wholesale and retail trades. As the necessary link between the producers of goods and their consumers, commerce is one of the most universal of economic activities (not all countries have an automotive, a petroleum or a textile industry for example, but all countries, no matter their level of development or their political system, will have a commerce sector, including almost certainly a retail outlet in the remotest village).

As might be expected from its universal reach, the sector is highly heterogeneous, with considerable differences between wholesale and retail firms, although in many countries an enterprise’s operations may cover both divisions of commerce. Wide differences also exist among retailers, depending on firms’ competitive strategies and on the subsector within which they operate, for instance whether they are department stores, specialty, or discount stores. The structure and functioning of the sector also vary greatly between countries, according to such factors as living standards, consumption and purchasing habits of the population, and legal regulations on the size of firms, shop-opening hours, and consumer protection. Commerce is also increasingly globalized and concentrated, with a high proportion of commerce companies ranked among the Fortune Global 500 in terms of sales turnover and number of employees.

ILO work in the sector in recent years has focussed on human resource implications of globalization and restructuring; on the employment impact of mergers and acquisitions; on the social and labour implications of advanced retail technologies; on skills development requirements for the sector and its workers; and on the needs of older workers in a changing retail environment.