2021 – What's in Store for Retail?
How innocent we were back in January, making plans for the year ahead. How very long ago it all seems now as we drag ourselves towards the finish line of what has been, for many, the hardest year in living memory. But despite gloomy news about restrictions over Christmas and threats of many areas being relegated back to stricter regulations, there does seem to finally be light at the end of the tunnel. The first vaccines have already been rolled out, and the Oxford vaccine looks set to be approved within a matter of weeks, leading to hope that by Spring we may be able to return to some sort of normality.
For the retail industry, the news of a possible end in sight couldn't come soon enough. The last year has been a dreary monotony of headlines about bankrupted businesses, mass unemployment and the impending “death of the high street”. But, even as we look to the future it's clear that things will never be quite the same as they once were. In retail, as in everything else, 2020 will be the turning point with which we mark the “before” and “after”. But if that's so, then what can we learn from these last 10 months? And what can we expect for the future?
The main takeaway of all this (and the soundbite of 2020) is that, in business as in life, we must learn to expect the unexpected. Contingency plans for unimagined futures must be put into place. New, more agile ways of working which allow us to respond to societal and industry changes at the drop of a hat must be implemented. But a more subtle lesson may also be learnt – nothing lasts forever, neither the good nor the bad. This year has seen the collapse of businesses that had previously seemed untouchable, but as we look to the new year we realise that even this most interminable of years is finally coming to an end. Perhaps it's time to embrace the impermanence of things as a source of limitless opportunity – if we're willing to adapt, learn and change with the times and the technology, the possibilities are endless. So what are the trends that we're likely to see as we face 2021 and how can we prepare for the uncertain future that awaits?
If you didn't already know that e-commerce is booming you've been living under a rock for the last 10 months (which admittedly it probably felt like sometimes). What you might not have noticed is the boom in social media shopping. In isolation consumers have reached out, not only to friends and relatives via social platforms, but also to influencers and online communities – resulting in a major boost for livestream shopping and social media/e-commerce integrations. In looking for more human connections, the highly edited, over produced product images and marketing campaigns that once triumphed have faded from popularity, to be replaced by relatable influencers and no-nonsense product reviews. Video is the future of e-commerce, and livestream e-commerce with its immediacy and potential for interaction is likely to be a front runner in retail growth.
Quest for Individuality
The growth of globalisation and instant access to brands all over the world has, over the last decade, created a homogenised fashion industry where it's almost impossible to find something truly unique. The typical high street throughout the UK is a carefully curated copy of the one in the next town. Big name brands sell the latest trend, season after season, offloading cookie cutter designs in the thousands, touting originality when there is none. Combine this with a growing distaste for the faceless capitalist monoliths who have until now dominated the fashion sector, and you have a public clamouring for something new. Vintage and second hand platforms are booming, and even luxury brands are beginning to offer upcycled goods alongside their latest lines. High street giants who can no longer afford the exorbitant rents and business rates for large stores will make way for small independent stores and e-commerce pop-ups looking to bridge the online/offline experience. Product tailoring and customisation services may be a way for smaller brands to get the edge on their competitors, while real time sourcing and short order stock will allow independents to adapt quickly to new trends and trial new brands and products with minimal risk.
The Search for Value
Since the financial crisis of 2008 much of the emphasis in retail has been on quantity over quality, and low cost retailers like Primark have taken over from the Debenhams style department stores of previous years. While cost is still a major concern, there is a growing demand for ethical products, and brands who are willing to stand up for their values. Sustainability is a buzzword that was already making waves in 2019, but with clear skies and crystal rivers the result of just one month of lockdown, the importance of climate responsibility could not be more clear. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for clothing when they know it has been sustainably or ethically sourced, and brands that want to future-proof their offering would do well to think green. Financial difficulties are still likely to be a reality for many, as unemployment hits new highs and the economy struggles to gain lost ground, so consumers are turning to cost spreading options to offset their higher value purchases – online payment solutions like Klarna or Afterpay allow buyers to spread the cost of their spend, and are likely to become more pervasive as brands look for new ways to entice customers.
Loungewear this time last year was a low ranking search term, an alternative to pyjamas on lazy Sundays for fashion conscious consumers. This year as we have found ourselves shut away from our social lives, the interest has increased almost tenfold and the trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. Despite hope that the majority of restrictions will be lifted as we head towards Spring, it's unlikely that we'll see a mass exodus back to the office every day as both business owners and employees will have seen the benefits to home working, at least on a partial basis. Everyday fashion for the new decade is likely to be a mix of comfort and practicality mixed with original touches, although there is likely to be a bold resurgence in party wear in the second half of 2021 when we're finally able to celebrate all those occasions we've been putting off for so long.
Whatever awaits us in the new year, right now in the midst of this strange Christmas rush, perhaps it's time to take stock of where we are and congratulate ourselves for making it through a year that has tested the best of us. 2021 may bring with it its own difficulties, but with the resilience and insight that 2020 has given us, I think we can safely say that we're up to the challenge.
Written by Amber Domenech Patey