It has been another whirlwind year for the retail industry. Although COVID-19 continued to create market volatility and cause customer sentiment to careen like a pinball, we saw brands and retailers rise to the occasion by rolling out new tech, strategies and experiences to keep pace.
This year’s top stories represent the hard work retailers put in: how they attempted to understand evolving consumer needs, better collaborate internally and with external partners, reimagine physical experiences, and use digital technology in more meaningful ways.
COVID was unfortunately not “new” news in 2021, but its ongoing evolution made it a major coverage area for Retail TouchPoints throughout the year. It’s no wonder: with the possible exception of hospitality and travel, retail was the industry most strongly impacted by the pandemic.
It should be noted that not all those impacts were negative, particularly for omnichannel retailers that already had strong ecommerce foundations in place. For those that lacked up-to-date online retail capabilities, however, the choice was stark: pivot quickly or perish.
Much was written about the pandemic’s impact on consumer behavior, which was unquestionably dramatic. But it was also evident that in many ways, COVID served to intensify existing trends rather than create brand-new ones. For example, ecommerce as a share of all retail had been steadily increasing for several years before COVID fast-forwarded its growth. Consumer concerns about sustainability were already on the rise before the pandemic demonstrated just how interrelated people and the planet’s health have become.
COVID also pushed many retail organizations to make several necessary and long-needed changes. Making supply chains more resilient and flexible has been on many brands’ to-do lists for years; now it has become a business necessity. Investing in solutions that provide true store-level, item-by-item inventory accuracy — a requirement for successful BOPIS and curbside pickup operations — will generate benefits throughout the retail enterprise.
It may be inappropriate to talk about these types of silver linings when the costs of COVID have been so high, but they certainly exist. Let’s hope 2022 moves us all into a period when we can start to reap their benefits while still acknowledging all our losses.
When we talk about retail innovation, it’s very easy to get lost in the technical side of things. After all, there are so many cool tools and platforms designed to help us reach and engage shoppers in meaningful ways. But I think this year showed that the store is more important than ever, and our executive readers are clamoring for new ideas and inspiration to fuel their new concepts.
If anything, we have learned over the past year that ecommerce simply cannot replace the power of stores and, more than ever, that the two need to work in tandem to drive experience success. That is why we expanded our 40 Under 40 awards program to encompass not just store designers, architects and strategists but also CX leads, marketers and brand founders. In order to create next-gen customer experiences, all of these players need to work together, using data and insights to determine what shoppers really want, how they can design a store environment to meet these needs, and how to integrate powerful technology to support their needs and goals.
Our stories from 2021 show us that sure, technology is important, but it is creativity and ideation that bring next-gen designs and experiences to life and help them see their full potential. These new store formats and models are built upon entertainment, excitement and discovery, and that is the heart of what makes brick-and-mortar so powerful.
So as we close out 2021, I say three cheers to the creatives! You are the ones who really help push retail to the limit and I can’t wait to see what ideas you come up with in 2022.
Industry conversations in 2021 were again dominated by the growth of ecommerce. But what I find vastly more interesting (and more important) is the growing democratization of retail that is being facilitated by ecommerce. More than ever before, just about anyone can be a retailer — and a successful one at that.
To see this in action, look no further than the explosion of aggregators that are snapping up Amazon sellers at a breakneck pace and creating millionaires in the process. When it comes to the democratization of commerce, the impact of Amazon cannot be overstated. The ecommerce juggernaut’s third-party marketplace has enabled millions of entrepreneurs to reach consumers at a previously unimaginable scale. In the process, it has inspired the development of innumerable other marketplaces that only amplify the opportunity for brands and SMBs.
But even as we watched marketplaces explode this year, we also saw a seemingly contradictory move toward direct-to-consumer (DTC) models, with other key commerce enablers — Shopify, BigCommerce and Adobe, to name a few — helping companies connect with consumers directly through owned sites and social commerce.
I don’t believe these two trends are conflicting. In the era of digital commerce, brands need both their own direct connection to shoppers and a presence on the discovery engines that are marketplaces and social platforms. The oft-repeated mantra of 2021 — “Be everywhere your customers are” — will only become more true in 2022 as the number of channels where commerce takes place increases.
Large legacy retailers have historically struggled to keep pace with rapidly changing consumer behaviors and emerging tech trends., while conversely, smaller digitally native companies have been able to grow and thrive thanks to their agility and cutting-edge ideas.
But in 2021, we saw a change. We saw retailers of all sizes and stages of maturity quickly pivot and roll out new services and experiences to support their businesses — and their customers. The biggest leaps came from a meeting of the minds, which is why collaboration was a focal point in our top innovation-themed stories for 2021. Whether it was ecommerce giants sharing their tech capabilities with the world, brick-and-mortar players harnessing the power of technology and their people, or retailers and solution providers working more closely than ever, the biggest developments have all included collaboration across roles, companies and even industries.
The sheer breadth of collaboration is highlighted in the 2021 Retail Innovator Awards: every winner worked with internal and external teams to drive success for their brand. Better collaboration also was the focus of many of these innovations, whether it was onboarding a wide ecosystem of franchised stores on a single digital wallet or enabling two-way communication across the entire enterprise.
This emphasis on collaboration isn’t going anywhere in 2022. As the industry gets more complex and brands become more entwined, offering the best experiences possible is going to be about working together and using seamless, friction-busting technology.
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.