2020 was a year when the hyperbole that journalists are always tempted to use actually rang true. The coronavirus was “totally unexpected,” its impacts were “unprecedented” and the times certainly were “uncertain.”
To mix a few more metaphors, retail was rocked by a tsunami of seismic changes, from an ecommerce surge to shuttered stores, furloughed or laid off employees, and a wave of bankruptcies and acquisitions. But as 2020 nears its end (thank goodness), our editors wanted to dig deeper into some of the other trends that shaped the past year — and which are likely to continue reshaping retail in 2021 and well beyond.
Here’s to a brighter 2021!
Six years ago, I had the chance to get a private look at Rebecca Minkoff’s revolutionary smart store in New York City’s Soho. The experience ignited my passion for the convergence of fashion and tech. Most of all, it encouraged me to investigate what the future of the store experience could be.
But this year, experiential retail has been redefined. COVID-19 has forced store designers and experiential executives to pivot their focus from “shoppertainment” to “purposeful shopping.” Safety and efficiency are taking precedence in consumers’ minds. When they decide to venture to a store, they want to feel confident that retailers have the procedures and technologies in place to keep them safe.
That doesn’t mean engagement falls by the wayside, though. It’s been exciting and encouraging to see brands like Men’s Wearhouse use technology to accelerate the shopping journey and help customers feel at ease. Brands like Harry Rosen are digitizing stylist curation so customers can get fitted in-store and finish their journeys online. Luxury houses like Burberry are going big with their store experiences, using mobile and social tech to bolster engagement and encourage store shoppers to purchase online.
While I still consider Rebecca Minkoff to be a clear innovator in this exciting world of experiential retail, I believe 2021 will bring forward a list of brands and retailers that are striking the perfect balance of experience and utility in their stores.
At a glance one would expect social distancing to reduce the demand for white glove service, but the pandemic has proven the opposite: pent-up demand for social connections has made associate interactions more important than ever. That’s why much of 2020’s hottest retail tech hasn’t just been about reducing friction but also driving whole new experiences.
From live chat to virtual stylists, retailers have been finding a way to bring the in-store experience and associated human touch into their customers’ homes. We may look back at 2020 as the year of ecommerce, but it’s also the year that proved human interaction could be molded into an important differentiator for retailers willing to put in the effort.
What does this mean for a post-vaccine world? Once stores open back up, physical retailers will need a way to compete with the convenience of delivery and BOPIS, making the value of associate-powered personalization even greater. Brick-and-mortar can’t hope to match the ease of ecommerce, but in-person consultations just plain feel better than calls or even video conferences.
The online white glove services that cropped up in recent months aren’t going anywhere — if anything, they’ll serve as a model for in-store experiences to learn from and build upon. We are heading into a whole new realm of personalization, and your associates will be leading the way.
The pandemic has caused a wave of technology-fueled changes for retailers. Whether or not technology was a part of their brand DNA before, companies were forced to innovate quickly in order to survive and evolve with consumers’ shifting behaviors.
Adaption took place across all channels of the shopper journey, with retailers harnessing tech to pivot to touchless checkout, curbside pickup, controlling in-store traffic flow, appointment-based shopping and even same-day delivery via third-party vendors (and in some cases drones!). Brands launched AR/VR features for customers to try out everything from lipstick colors to brand new furniture, all in the safety of their homes.
I expect the next frontier of retail tech will further bolster the experiential component of stores as shoppers begin to revisit physical locations. Innovations in 3D body scanning for apparel and footwear fitting will likely accelerate and shift the concept of the fitting room as we know it, facilitating a more customized product and experience, while also maintaining social distancing and pandemic safety procedures.
And while 3D printing has been around for a while, I believe new industries will begin to strategically apply this tech in a way that better manages inventory while addressing sustainability issues and consumers’ increased demand for personalized offerings.
There’s nothing like a crisis to make you appreciate the basics, and what could be more “basic” than the mechanisms that get products into stores and, eventually, into consumers’ hands? Product shortages at the pandemic’s onset brought the term “supply chain” into the public consciousness, as retailers like Ahold Delhaize and their logistics partners scrambled to find alternate sources for everyday items.
2020 also was the year when curbside pickup and its cousin BOPIS moved from the “nice-to-have” category into the “necessary for survival” column, for essential and non-essential retailers alike. Retailers’ task in 2021 will be to more tightly integrate curbside operations into backend systems such as the POS, inventory and order management, and loss prevention.
There’s also plenty of room for customer-facing innovation, ranging from pickup area design to digital signage that can combine easy-to-understand directions for shoppers and targeted marketing opportunities. Retailers that can use signage to address customers by name as they review their orders could also successfully cross-sell and upsell key items, helping to mitigate the loss of impulse purchases that occurred naturally when shoppers entered the brick-and-mortar store.
When I say that diversity and inclusion causes are taking the forefront in retail, I really mean in all businesses and across our global society. It is sad that we are still in a place where we have to “scream and yell” about making these issues a priority, but it’s where we are and it’s on all of us — in every type of business and part of society — to move forward with positive progress.
Some retail companies are stepping up with programs that have potential: Target, for example, has become a founding member of OneTen, a coalition of 37 companies that aim to train, hire and advance one million Black Americans who lack a four-year college degree. This initiative is in line with Target’s Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) committee, announced in June 2020.
For retail companies, though, there are many topics that need to be addressed in order to improve diversity and inclusion within their organizations, including:
It’s still a long road to achieving a better balance of diversity and inclusion. Continued positive progress is a step in the right direction.
Retail TouchPoints is the leading source for news and insights focused on omnichannel retail strategy and experience design. Since debuting in 2008, Retail TouchPoints has evolved to include breaking news, proprietary research, in-depth trend reports, video interviews and store tours, a weekly podcast, and a series of virtual and in-person events. Zeroing in on the strategic needs and goals of retail executives and decision-makers, the Retail TouchPoints portfolio recently expanded to better serve store designers and experiential retail executives with design:retail, powered by Retail TouchPoints. Beyond its diverse range of resources, Retail TouchPoints has active and engaged communities across LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.