Retail 2021: Trends and predictions

As the age old saying goes, the only constant is change, and never has this rung more true than today as the world navigates its way through the coronavirus pandemic. The retail sector has been particularly hard hit by the global crisis, at a time when it was already struggling with low consumer confidence and rising costs. But with crisis comes opportunity for innovation, and many brands and businesses have reacted and adapted rapidly and admirably to the changed environment.
6 July, 2022
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So as we prepare to shut the door on 2020, we ask six industry experts what they believe lays ahead for retail.

Game on for gamification. George Gottl, CCO and Founder, UXUS

The world of gaming holds the key to opening up new dimensions for retail in 2021. Gaming platforms engage millions of users at any given moment in a creative, immersive experience in the virtual space. Brands need to reconsider the traditional transactional experience and move towards an innovative new structure that seamlessly moves between the digital and physical realms; something which most of the current retail experiences don’t allow.

These immersive experiences also open up potential new revenue streams. Retailers could consider selling products for a URL persona or avatar as well as the physical twin of the product IRL. Consumers would be able to try out products and items for both themselves and their avatars. Prada already successfully debuted the idea this year with its own virtual reality dimension. The experience is immersive, experiential and flows seamlessly between virtual and physical worlds.

Consumers are increasingly seeking to express their IRL values, style and aspirations through their avatars – or experiment with new modes of expression in the virtual world, but the industry has not kept pace with this new customer behaviour. These virtual experiences would allow brands to reflect their ethos and values in a way that the current e-commerce landscape does not cater for. Through their avatars, shoppers can be brought together and create communities in these alternative digital worlds, rather than act in isolation as with the more traditional, linear e-commerce model.

Conversely, gamification needs to offer virtual products as well as purchases and experiences that direct consumers back to the physical store. Mobile game BTS World has hosted limited-edition product drops where fans buy the product in the game and collect the product in the physical store.

The gamification of e-commerce can recreate the serendipity of physical shopping and enable customers to make purchases both virtually and physically, spread out across the entire journey to purchase. This fluid approach to retail will not only benefit the customer but also brands and businesses, by creating multiple encounters with products, deep connections with customers, and ultimately increasing brand loyalty and transactions.

The rise of the ‘Insperience Economy’. Michelle Du-Prat, Group Strategy Director, Household

A year dominated by COVID-19 has forced us to stay at home, yet 2020 has brought with it a forced catalyst for change, redefining our relationships with brands and technology, as we moved very deliberately from offline to online worlds of connectivity and even life management.

People across all ages have learnt quickly to embrace digital socialising, working and playing, accelerating a range of new behaviours that won’t reverse. The upshot is a new-found and universal tech-confidence, along with the understanding of how it can help control and personalise interactions – from shopping, to eating, to banking and learning. IKEA, amongst others, has introduced contactless click-and-collect, delivering straight into a customer’s car boot, and Ulta Beauty has innovated with AR to aid customers in virtually trying on makeup – bringing together both magic and practicality.

As life has slowed down, mobile and digital connectivity has exploded options and choice for customers to adapt to and enjoy retail experiences safely and conveniently. This new-found digital agility will enable customers to better engage between channels for joined up and differentiated service experiences.

This is where the ‘insperience’ economy comes in. Brands are finding additional revenue through inspiring new and existing customers via virtual experiences offering value beyond price (the market continues to rapidly grow, predicted to be worth £168 million over the next 12 months according to Barclaycard, 2020). New influencer partnerships such as Beyonce and Peloton, and seasonal virtual events such as John Lewis’ free-and-paid for online activities to prepare for Christmas, have the pulling power to dynamically compete for share of attention, time and spend.

The power of engagement with this group we call the ‘Participation Generation’ will redefine the role of retail in 2021, seeing both physical and digital worlds colliding to amplify and connect these new innovations.

Welcome to the ‘Insperience Economy’ – you’ll find it somewhere very near you.

Leaning into local. Katie Baron, Director of Brand Engagement, Stylus

2020 – the year of radical change – has caused consumers to finally get comfortable with life via a digital lens, thrust the value of community (online and off) into the starkest spotlight and demanded brand practices capable of spurring a more positive status quo.

Specific trends we’ve highlighted intensively this year include the leveraging of live commerce – from the epic, social streaming extravaganzas of brands such as Chinese e-tail giant to the kind of one-to-one virtual consultations (most prevalent in the beauty sector) that reveal just how digital can facilitate intimacy. It’s an appetite that’s also birthed the ‘insperience economy’ – at-home products and services that may have appeared gimmicky in the early days of ‘quarantinis’ but are now, according to Barclays, a sector predicted to reach £168m ($217m) by mid-2021 in the UK alone. Encompassing everything from fitness (note Lululemon’s acquisition of home fitness start-up Mirror) to culinary genius, the promise is rich and multifaceted.

This year has also been shaped by the rise of bookable brand time and ‘small numbers experiums’ primed for safe social connections and upgraded utility services; from drive-thru concepts to click-and-collect, these formerly pedestrian parts of the retail experience have become touchpoints of premium importance.

We’ve also seen the rise of virtual flagships and the rising stock of zero-touch technologies capable of not only building reassurance into the physical brand space, but delivering a more exhilarating and potentially personalised journey where voice, audio, app, sonic and gesture-controlled technologies can craft a more in-depth brand personality.

For 2021 all of the above and more will be key, but it’s also worth pinpointing the growing importance of ‘leaning into local’. No longer the byword for small-town mentality, ‘local’ hit a new stride via the pandemic and Black Lives Matter uprisings, as community bonds (both practical and emotional) became enormously evident. Expect a new breed of decentralised stores and activations talking to ‘micropolitan’, regionalised consumers and retailer-backed, tech-enabled support networks (see Walmart’s collaboration with local goods and services exchange app Nextdoor) based on ‘omnifying the neighbourhood’.

Do good, feel good. Ian Johnston, Founder & Creative Director, Quinine

What is important to people – to customers – has changed dramatically over the last nine months. Back in March, frictionless, convenient retail was at the top of everybody’s agenda.

Our time in lockdown has changed our fundamental approach to life. Our attention has shifted towards supporting the local community, our families and the impact we can have on the world around us. Today, we are much more concerned with why we buy and whom we buy from than how quickly we can get what we’ve purchased.

Who we buy from and what that brand stands for are more important than ever before. Our experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated our need and desire to feel good about our purchasing decisions. With few retail experiences open, events to attend, or activities to participate in, people are finding fulfilment in associating themselves with brands that do good. The trend towards brands communicating their virtuous behaviour to engage and build trust and loyalty with customers will have a tremendous impact in the future.

This goes beyond consumers’ baseline expectations of a brand’s approach to sustainability, inclusion and staff, to now include how brands support the social causes that they believe in. As brands move towards becoming the commercial and cultural pillars that society looks to for guidance, they are being asked by the public to wield their influence to have a positive impact beyond the products and services they sell.

The year ahead will undoubtedly see brands exploring how the physical store environment can be used to better engage customers in the causes that matter to their brand most. Showing kindness and empathy to your staff, community and customers will outpace customer experience, convenience and price as the key drivers of brand differentiation.

New rituals for the new normal. Joan Insel, Global Retail Strategy Specialist, CallisonRTKL Vice President

The time is now. The future is tomorrow. And retail is evolving, just as it has always evolved to keep pace with consumer needs and desires.

As we all know, COVID-19 has accelerated certain trends. Five years of change, pushed into five months: From being well to wellbeing; from “peak stuff” to re-use, re-furbish and re-purpose; from big box to small/alternative formats; and from global to more local. So what’s next?

The joy of shopping in real life is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling (and sometimes tasting) the product; “IRL” shopping is about thrilling the senses. Just as the role of brick-and-mortar stores and shopping centres needs to be re-defined, so does the digital shopping experience. Right now, most products are presented as a product or package next to more products and packages. The experience is just a transaction, with one brand following another.

Remember the old days, commuting downtown, grabbing a coffee on the way to the office and plunking down at a desk? Everyday routines have been disrupted and multiple aspects of life will see sustained change. Work rituals have been impacted the most, and attitudes towards “what we need” are now aligning “what is meaningful.”

During times of crisis, our brains crave certainty and predictability – an intrinsic self-defence mechanism. But, when the immediate future is difficult to predict, taking the long view provides clarity and possibilities when the near term feels less certain. Some possibilities may be new while others may be old, and simply, applied differently. And, like now, adaptability will be key.

To quote Mark Twain, “the past does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

Pop-ups built around digital data. Ollie Patterson, Marketing Director, Mynt

Looking ahead to 2021, I don’t really see physical retail changing that much. People will still go shopping, they’ll just have to wear a mask and distance themselves from others. But over time, people will get used to it and these shopping parameters will be loosened.

As a full-service creative agency, we work with brands in so many different sectors and across diverse creative disciplines, and the commonality in all briefs right now seem to centre around delivering digital convenience.

As soon as the first lockdown happened, all of our clients needed digital campaigns, content, assets, etc. in order to easily communicate, engage with and sell to their customers online. The briefs were about adding value to our clients’ customers in the sense that their stores were shut, so people needed an easy way to still access the brand. The brands needed more digital content than ever to ensure engagement remained high.

Now, as we exit lockdown 2.0, we’re receiving more physical retail design briefs. But they’re not focused on creating “COVID-friendly” retail concepts. If anything, the briefs are simply centred on harnessing the fluidity of online communications and injecting some of that into a physical space. Our focus is on creating engaging physical environments and enjoyable shopping experiences.

That said, as retail evolves, one of our predictions for the future (particularly for fashion, sports and beauty retailers) is the emergence of localised capsule collections popping up in nearby regions in the form of temporary pop-up spaces, which will be built around a brand’s digital data. I think data will start to be implemented more intelligently in order to further aid convenience by informing what product ranges a pop-up space will stock (based on localised online browsing behaviour and search patterns), as well as informing what events/activations these pop-up spaces should hold. For certain markets that people dip into once a month/every other month, this model of retail has the potential to make brands feel more fluid and ‘real-time’.

This article was written by Gemma Balmford, and first appeared on Retail Focus:

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