Trends Forecast 2021: The Year Ahead in Retail

After the pandemic-related tumult of 2020, the coming year will (again) be like no other
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Posted February 1, 2021

COVID-19 bears the three main characteristics of a “black swan” event – it was extremely rare, had a severe impact and was characterized by a widespread belief that its occurrence would be obvious in hindsight.

As a result, it shredded most everyone’s predictions for 2020.

Part of that is timing – the coronavirus was just making its presence known in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China – well after many forecasts for what was then the coming year had either been printed or posted.

That said, it’s forecast time for a changing retail landscape in which some sectors were pummeled (apparel stores) while others experienced an uptick (grocers) during 2020.

Here, experts detail some possibilities for 2021:

MORE MIXED-USE

Retail centers with an adjoining residential component are expected to continue gaining momentum. A recent example of this trend is the reborn Ballston Quarter mall in Arlington, Va., whose reconfigured retail component is now connected to an all-new, 26-story residential tower that sits on land once occupied by a Macy’s Home Goods store. “The tower adds 500 permanent residents to the transitory population in the area, helping to foster a 24/7 environment,” says Marc Fairbrother, VP, CallisonRTKL (Baltimore), whose firm worked on the project in conjunction with Cooper Carry (Atlanta). In addition, the project involved “de-malling the mall,” says Fairbrother, by removing the center’s roof and reconfiguring its exterior walls to create a greater connection with adjacent streets.

UBER-AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

AREA15, Las Vegas’ latest don’t-miss destination isn’t on the Strip, and it doesn’t offer gambling. But what it does provide is a wow-inducing visual/shopping/event experience unlike anything else. AREA15 (a play on the infamous Area 51, where a crashed alien spaceship is said to be secretly stored) is “the ultimate expression of the experience economy,” said Winston Fisher, the complex’s CEO, who teamed with Chief Creative Officer Michael Beneville to take participants in this year’s International Retail Design Conference (irdconline.com) on a virtual tour of the facility. The presentation showed an amazing smorgasbord of sights, sounds and one-of-a-kind artistic creations (for admiring or for buying). Their advice to anyone seeking to create an experience with a similar impact: crawl/walk/run. As for expansion plans, Beneville and Fisher said they are eyeing two East Coast sites, as well as one overseas.

CATERING TO CAUTIOUS CONSUMERS

How will COVID-19 impact shopping behavior in the coming year? There are two distinct takes on this: we will either put the coronavirus into our collective rear-view mirror quickly, or the process will be decidedly more gradual. Falling into the first category is CallisonRTKL’s Fairbrother: “Once we have a vaccine, I think we will go back to life as usual. As with the Spanish Flu, I think there will be a transition period of great caution, but it is amazing to me how fast people forget.”

Expecting a more measured process is Randall Stone, Principal of Experience at architecture/design firm ә’māz llc (New York) and a member of VMSD’s Editorial Advisory Board. Stone says by spring 2021, brick-and-mortar retailers will be dealing with two main types of shoppers: “keeners,” those eager, excited, and ready to get back into stores; and “fencers,” who want to re-engage but still hold strong concerns and apprehensions. “Retailers should focus on those two types of shoppers by addressing some common table stakes, like store hygiene and in-store density,” Stone says. (For a drill-down into how to appeal to those shoppers, see Stone’s column on vmsd.com/blog).

For all of the challenges roiling the retail sector, it’s worth noting that many brands continue their perpetual quest to find new ways of connecting with consumers. Two noteworthy examples: in the coming year, Ulta Beauty (Bolingbrook, Ill.) plans to open 1000-square-foot “shops-in shops” in 100 Target (Minneapolis) stores, and Dollar General (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) will continue rolling out Popshelf, its new standalone store concept, in 30 locations in suburban U.S. markets.

Clearly, the new normal will include many elements of the old.