These are the global trends driving retail in 2021
They say pandemics are punctuation points in history, and there is little doubt that the current global crisis has accelerated life into the future. Yet, the seeds of change were already planted. Take retail, for instance. For far too long the consumer landscape has remained largely unaltered. Even with the emergence of e-commerce, digital shopping took its place alongside the physical store. In most scenarios the two rarely communicated.
Then came the pandemic. As shops were forced to close and as high streets became ghost towns, within months brands sharpened up their digital presence. The speed of change in the last year has been astonishing. The consultancy The Future Laboratory calls it the ‘transformative 2020s’ where it will be all about the ‘experience economy’. So what does this mean for retail?
The 2010s were testing ground for digital shopping with the first decade of the 21st century witnessing many trials and errors. But as technology advanced, a new generation of digital natives began confidently shopping online, seamlessly clicking-and-collecting on their devices. Traditional forms of advertising gave way to the influencer movement and powerful YouTubers. In the 2010s, digital shopping was new and exciting. In contrast, much of traditional retail on the high street had become old and tired. Legacy bricks-and-mortar brands had simply not evolved in their look, feel and operations.
A decade on and how we shop has altered into something altogether more layered. The pandemic killed the high street, but curiously it benefited local independents. With many of us working from home and encouraged to stay in our ’fifteen-minute city’, our neighbourhoods took on a new life. No longer commuting, many workers enjoyed their local offerings. Smaller brands proved to be more agile in a crisis too. Overnight, many pubs transformed into specialist delis selling produce that would have otherwise been used in their kitchens. No longer able to sell ‘non-essential’ clothes, some local boutiques sold plants instead. The ingenuity is to be applauded.
Simultaneously, the pandemic saw the digital retail space morph into something altogether more sophisticated. Customers can now buy almost anything online be it via multi-brand platforms, directly from retailers or with a click on social media. Our data is being manipulated to second-guess what we may want to buy – although not always to great success. While many brands are exploring virtual and augmented reality to give consumers an immersive physical experience in the digital environment. The latter is still in its infancy, but as technology advances, naturally the digital experience will feel more real.
In the near future, the retail landscape is likely to evolve further into an omnichannel consumer experience. What the pandemic revealed is our need to physically connect. Despite the convenience of Amazon, Ocado, et al, consumers still rushed to bricks-and-mortar as soon as they reopened. The lure will remain, but the physical shop has to alter its proposition to survive. It needs to be imaginative and agile like the local independents.
The shop will be the brand ambassador. To thrive, the smart physical space of the 2020s will offer what the digital world cannot: intimacy and shared experiences. This is already happening with many bricks-and-mortar retail establishments evolving into experiential places where they engage and offer excitement, curate serendipitous finds, help build communities. In this scenario branding and design have the power to alter the destiny of retail. Data will also play a major role. Brands will need to work intelligently with technology to get to know their consumers’ habits and needs. This will assist the logistics of shopping too, determine in-store stock, and offer seamless transactions and deliveries.
There is a final element to this puzzle. Younger shoppers are interested in the brand’s provenance; they demand transparency, want information about the supply chain, how the workers are treated, their ecological stance. The future consumer can make and break a brand with a single hashtag. This consumer group responds positively to the intimacy of social media and sees authenticity in purchasing from direct-to-consumer brands. The traditional retail world needs to respond to this mind-set, work positively with social media, take a genuine ethical stand and support independent brands. We are already seeing this trend with some of the major retailers hosting smaller labels and offering upcycling and reuse services.
This decade will see the physical shop expanding its role from sales to the recruitment and retainment of customers. With transactions taking place digitally online or in store, they are liberated to be performance stages – imaginative editorialised spaces with ever-changing curated content that excites and involves consumers. Simultaneously, as technology and machine learning improves, the virtual retail sphere will become more physical. Retail is likely to become more of a physical/digital mash up – a hybrid where the consumer experience is personal, intimate and predictive no matter where they shop. Most importantly, as we have come to learn in the last 12 months, every brand will need to be agile and open to change.
Images: Applegreen retail stores, Cowshed Babington House and rebranding project by Spinach Branding.
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