The retail industry is changing: here’s what to expect in 2021, according to the data

COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted the way retail operates. We asked 600+ retailers to share how the year 2020—and the pandemic that defined it—have changed the face of the industry.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic introduced an unprecedented degree of uncertainty amongst retailers and the people they serve. Those changes made it difficult to think too far into the future: it’s hard to plan for next quarter when even next week seems unpredictable. But retailers proved resilient, adapting quickly to ever-changing circumstances and, in some cases, making those changes permanent.

With 2020 behind us, we wanted to understand what’s next for the retail industry. And we knew the best way to understand that was to turn to retailers themselves.

We interviewed hundreds of industry leaders to ask them about their experiences in 2020 and their plans for the year to come. To see our full findings, you can read our 2021 Retail Outlook Report. Or you can check out some of our most notable findings below.

Hiring is on the rise

Source: 2021 Retail Outlook Report

Despite 2020’s difficulties, not all news was bad news. Through November 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that overall retail sales (excluding gas, auto, and food services) were up 6.6% compared to the previous year. Though there were steep drops early in the pandemic for some sectors (e.g. an 86% plunge for apparel in April), they were offset by clear gains in others (e.g. 27% revenue gains from food-and-beverage stores in the same month). And those gains stayed relatively steady throughout the year.

Those gains, it seems, have also pulled through to hiring. After widespread disruption at the outset of the pandemic, 54% of retailers reported that they’d increased employee headcount throughout the year. An additional 23% said that they had maintained their existing workforce.

This aligns with findings from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which noted an uptick in jobs for retail trade at the end of 2020.

Responsibilities at work are expanding

Source: 2021 Retail Outlook Report

A staggering 93% of respondents reported taking on additional responsibilities in 2020—even as their companies hired more people in 2020.

In our study, retailers noted that increased responsibilities were spread both vertically—from front-line employees to senior managers—and horizontally, with new responsibilities covering everything from additional projects (46%), more attention to eCommerce (39%) and increased supervisory authority (31%)

Looking ahead, many of these increases could become permanent. It’s one example of how COVID-19 will reshape the retail landscape into the “new normal.”

“Ultimately, when the pandemic hit, we had to change our marketing practice. We suddenly got more into trade, selling more to interior designers, and we also upped our influencer marketing practice with smaller, niche influencers. We had to pivot quite quickly to cover things we hadn’t before.”

— Michael Zung, Co-Founder & CEO at Bloomist

Source: 2021 Retail Outlook Report

In the radically altered retail landscape of 2020, retailers reported a vast increase in the reliance on digital tools. 79% of retailers reported an increase in digital tools in 2020.

As we shift more into a hybrid work environment (see below), we can expect this to continue.

Hybrid work is likely here to stay

Source: 2021 Retail Outlook Report

Looking past the pandemic, 56% of respondents expect their companies to rely on a hybrid model—a mix of remote and

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