The retail industry is changing: here’s what to expect in 2021

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New report from Airtable outlines retail industry trends heading into the new year

New report from Airtable outlines retail industry trends heading into the new year

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

Reliance on digital tools is increasing


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 in-office work. This could potentially be a best-of-both-worlds scenario, adding the flexibility and expanded hiring capabilities of remote work, while satisfying the practical necessities of on-site work (e.g. in brick and mortar locations).

“We’re going to continue with a hybrid work model after the pandemic, with a more flexible workspace in the office. Instead of the traditional desk space, we’re focusing on the office as a place to work together, allowing employees the ability to work from home when they need to focus on bigger solo tasks and projects.” — Joan Born, Brand Development Manager at Larissa Loden

The industry is hopeful for a brighter 2021


Source: 2021 Retail Outlook Report

2020 was undeniably a challenging year—especially for retail. Nevertheless, morale in the industry is surprisingly strong: 65% of retailers say they’re optimistic about 2021’s economic climate. It’s consistent with year-end polls both specific to retail, and those reflecting overall confidence.

“I am optimistic, surprisingly. Just like everyone else. I think there’s a sense that we’ve seen the worst—it can only get better from here. I’d be happy to get back into physical retail, but for now, we have the good fortune to be working in categories that are growing.”

— Michael Zung, Co-Founder and CEO at Bloomist

Looking to the the year ahead

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future isn’t certain. But while uncertainty remains, the confidence expressed by retailers—and the gains they’ve seen across hiring, tool use, and the like—bodes well for the industry’s recovery.

The year 2020 was a momentous one for retail. Learn more about what changed, and what’s next for the industry based on insights from 600+ retailers in the 2021 Retail Outlook Report.

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