Great Expectations for the Year Ahead

Retail is the science of reality and the art of possibility
Posted January 14, 2021

The phrase, “The sky is falling!” has been permanently burnished into the vernacular by Henny-Penny, also known as Chicken Little, when she was struck in the head with a falling acorn. So sure that disaster was imminent, she cast an ominous warning. And while it is undeniable that huge shards of firmament cascaded to the ground in 2020, it’s time to face reality, pick up the pieces and rebuild.

Over the course of 2020, many businesses went under, the economy weakened, there was a steep rise in unemployment, various cities went into lockdown, people were confined in isolation, and even more heart wrenching, lives were tragically lost. That is the reality. We can’t change the past, but we can mold the present and define the future. There have been all too many societal, and even existential, challenges in the past, and it’s been the light of optimism that has brought humanity back from the precipice to even greater heights.

Optimism isn't a magic potion or simply a wishful mindset. Rather, it’s a perspective and assessment of the state of being and a positive approach to both challenges and successes. And while we just turned the pages of the calendar, the challenges that beset us have not spontaneously evaporated, we already see that the new year brings new challenges.

Retailers who have accepted the science of reality, are now turning to the art of possibility. Art is not only a reflection of the times, but also a response to the times. And it must be noted that if you were to hold a mirror to the face of retail, the reflected image would also be our response to the events of the day. In assessing the reality of the times, many retailers and suppliers have responded by flexing their creative muscle.

With a bit of retooling, a large dose of empathy and caring about the health, safety and wellbeing of the community, many retailers, suppliers, and brands large and small, have been making masks, producing hand sanitizer and other equipment needed to protect the safety of the public.

For example, the braintrust at Dyson focused their creative energies and technologies on developing portable ventilators, and a family-run, disabled veteran-owned sign company on Long Island, one that services the visual and wayfinding markets, reacted to the needs of the community by quickly reengineered their processes and machinery to manufacture essential PPE to healthcare institutions, educational facilities and offices throughout the country.

While it’s encouraging to see so many step up in our collective struggle, it’s also important to recognize the positive light that will help guide us in the aftermath of the pandemic. First and foremost, and perhaps the most gratifying, is the newfound respect that retail employees are now receiving. They were among the first essential workers who put their wellbeing on the line to ensure that the supply of goods and services reached the consumer. In addition, retailers and consumers across the board are reevaluating the cycle of consumption: Retail brands are beginning to eliminate wasteful practices and reducing physical footprints and consumers are supporting more local businesses. And what mustn’t be minimized is the fact that retailers are turning their focus to enhanced levels of customer service. Retailers will move forward by forging strong relationships with their customer base and by recognizing not only their dreams and desires, but also their challenges, concerns and needs.

Clearly 2020 is a year that we’re all happy to leave behind. And while the two-week free trial to 2021 has many wanting to cancel their subscriptions, let’s go forward with positive expectations and optimism. After all, retail has always been built upon the great expectations of what lies ahead.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.