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What Does the Future of Retail Look Like?

February 1, 2021

Retail had a turbulent 2020. It was a year that saw trends already making their presence felt, such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), eCommerce, contactless payment, and more, gain greater influence as retailers scrambled to find ways to cater to consumers with heightened and evolving expectations.

Now, it’s time for retailers, particularly those with brick-and-mortar locations, to rebound and forge the future of the industry in 2021.

To explore how retailers can make that happen, Datascan President and CEO Adrian Thomas joined a recent roundtable discussion featuring other bright minds and innovative thinkers in the space.

Let’s dive into some of the insights the panel delivered about what retailers – and those who give them their business – can expect in the year ahead. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced shoppers to abandon brick-and-mortar experiences for a period of time, it’s unlikely that in-person experiences will fall by the wayside for good.

In fact, Thomas believes that these experiences will simply be “reimagined” in ways that support holistic, innovative uses of space that benefit both the supply chain and hybrid consumer experiences that play off of online retail presences.

Physical spaces may not even look like traditional storefronts, at least in many cases – they could act as distribution points or heightened brand experiences that function more as an attraction and destination than a transactional space. Still, for all of that promise, this change isn’t due to happen overnight.

“I don’t see tremendous experiential changes happening in the bulk of retail in 2021,” Thomas said. “I don’t see the level of investment that retailers are going to be willing to make in that pure experiential focus in 2021. … There’s going to be a reluctance to go back to brick-and-mortar at least through this summer.”

With masks and social distancing still set to be fixtures of life outside your own home for likely all of 2021, consumer confidence shaky at best, and supply chain needs and deficiencies highlighted for many retailers, foundational improvements could draw more capital investment than experiential spaces.

Though retailers aren’t completely ignoring experiential storefronts or “sitting on their hands,” the first half of the year could still see retailers dragging a bit in making the magic happen. The COVID-19 strained retailers’ supply chains and practices for actually getting goods into consumers’ hands in new ways.

Grocers had to alter their stores and invest in automation and robotics when possible to elevate picking and logistics related to curbside pickup. Retailers in other sectors had to do the same to reckon with the rise in BOPIS, and investment was also poured into technologies and solutions that make spaces safer, from air filtration to elevated disinfection practices.

Overall, retailers large and small also had to take a new look at their overall operation and how they make use of their supply chain.

Finally, having a robust omnichannel strategy and presence became more critical than ever. Retailers need a holistic ecosystem that blends eCommerce and brick-and-mortar strategies, and they need the logistical wherewithal to keep that train chugging along. In particular, Thomas said accurate inventory management and counts will be essential to ensuring that any shopper, regardless of how a purchase is made, gets the good they need when they’re promised it. Though direct-to-consumer brands enjoyed the online-first market the COVID-19 pandemic created, Thomas said the drivers that were pushing these brands to operate some sort of brick-and-mortar space prior to the pandemic are still very present.

“[For some], the brand awareness is pretty high, which helps support the opening of brick-and-mortar stores to support the distribution of their product into the marketplace,” he said.

That brand awareness is key for any direct-to-consumer operation considering exploring the physical space. As another panel expert, Carol Spieckerman, put it – they need to consider if they’re an actual brand or simply “a place that has brands.”Employees in brick-and-mortar retail need special attention and care in the coming year to ensure they buy back into the overall offering after a year of challenges, though technology investment could help.

Even with leaner human workforces, technology solutions are making jobs in retail attractive and are allowing those positions to attract young, tech-savvy individuals that support elevated operations and experiences.

However, there are still challenges ahead. Necessary downsizing left some workers disillusioned with their “essential” roles in retail operations, and labor costs were a common target for savings. Organizations will need to find ways to support growth and engage in “modern” retail models without alienating the workers who will help them make it happen.

To learn more about how Datascan’s inventory counting solution helps retailers drive easy, accurate, efficient and flexible inventory processes, visit https://datascan.com/whyselfscan/.

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