This is retail’s most defining year – and it will emerge stronger in 2021

When a retail chief executive asked Retail Week editor Luke Tugby to summarise this year for retail in one word, he replied: “Defining”.

Tugby writes that 2020 has been defining for the industry in numerous ways – ways that should bring retailers optimism and hope as we move into 2021. 

Firstly, it’s been defining for the industry’s workforce; shop floor staff, warehouse workers and delivery drivers were deemed key workers during the initial lockdown as essential retail shops remained open to serve the nation. 

“Tales of individuals going above and beyond to help elderly, vulnerable or self-isolating customers shone a light on their true value and made us all feel proud to be a part of this industry,” Tubgy said. Supermarkets including Tesco and Sainsbury’s increased bonuses as a token of appreciation for their incredibly hard-working staff.

It’s also been a defining year in terms of company culture. The pandemic has inspired many retailers to focus on putting people before profit, turning their attention to helping communities while also championing sustainability.

Many third-party partnerships have been formed this year as a way to develop new revenue streams – such as AO launching physical stores inside Tesco. 

The culture of decision-making has also been transformed. Ideas that are generated on the shopfloor are now being passed up the chain to the c-suite. This has flipped the typical hierarchy on its head, enabling brands to remain closer to their customers through a ‘bottom up’ approach.

Chief executives are extremely appreciative of the quick responses of their store staff in coming up with innovative ways of working, enforcing coronavirus-secure operations and introducing new initiatives in days and weeks, as opposed to months. 

For example, B&Q transformed the warehouse space in its stores into ‘digital hubs’ within a matter of weeks, which enabled it to provide speedy delivery from nearly 60 of its biggest stores. 

Central teams are now working differently, too. M&S is just one business that acknowledges that the landscape has been transformed forever – its ‘Never the Same Again’ initiative is aimed at leveraging lessons from the pandemic to become “a faster, more efficient and more digitally focused business”.

M&S has also launched MS2, which is a brand new division that creates “a single integrated online, digital and data team”. Boss Steve Rowe said that it “flips the model” with regard to how the brand thinks and acts, and now many other companies are following suit. 

Of course, it’s also been a defining year when it comes to the way in which people are shopping and the effect this has had on bricks and mortar retail. Lockdowns led to a surge in online sales, and many consumers are expected to continue shopping in this way post-pandemic. 

Yet, as Tugby notes: “If there is one thing we can all rely on retail for, it is an innate ability to reinvent and evolve. It has been doing so for centuries and will do so again, even during the toughest of economic times.” 

While there’s no doubt that this has been a tough year for the sector, many retailers will also be “galvanised” by the experiences of the last year and head into 2021 with renewed hope, optimism and vigour. 

More challenges will lie ahead, but once again the sector has proved it is able to learn lessons, adapt and transform at an incredible speed. 

Tugby concludes: “As we near the end of the most defining of years, I am more certain than ever that retail will emerge even stronger in 2021.”

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