NRF 2021: Three Retail Trends to Keep in Mind

By Andrew Petro

NRF 2021 Retail’s Big Show (Chapter One) ended last week. Every year Matter attends the event on behalf of our roster of CX and retail technology clients and we get the chance to see the latest trends and technology that are transforming the industry. However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we turned our badges and blazers in for the virtual conference experience. 

And COVID-19 didn’t just impact how we observed the show, but also the major themes that permeated from it. I outlined key retail trends coming from last year’s show and the year-over-year shift (while not surprising) is significant. Below are the biggest themes and trends that stood out in 2021:

Growing E-Commerce Spotlights Importance of Product Discovery

It’s no surprise the shopping experience has changed due to COVID-19. With more consumers avoiding crowds at their local malls and shopping centers, and retailers enforcing strict occupancy limits, we saw record adoption of e-commerce in 2020, especially around the holiday season. 

However, as this trend continues in 2021 and beyond, it requires a paradigm shift. Consumers simply do not discover products online the same way they do in-store. In-store it’s all about product placement, whereas online there is a seemingly endless aisle of options and channels to choose from. As retailers continue to sort out their e-commerce experiences, Google introduced a new set of discovery tools to help to them improve their customers’ search functionality.

Experiential Retail Goes Virtual

Last year, I wrote about the new and unique in-store experiences retailers were employing to attract shoppers. Although retailers are still creating these experiences, their current motivation is to help keep customers safe. Extending beyond the confines of the physical store, these took the form of everything from contactless transactions, appointment setting, personal shopping and many more.

Verizon is an example of a company that embraced appointment setting, saying at NRF that it has handled 1.4 million customer appointments since the start of the pandemic. Guitar brand Gibson also recently launched a mobile app that allows them to interact with guitar players. Although the pandemic disrupted experiential retail in the traditional sense, it has also driven retailers to connect with their customers in new and innovative ways.

The Store Becomes a Fulfillment Center

As the pandemic confined many consumers to their homes, we saw shortages on everything from toilet paper to dumbbells to Nintendo Switch. All these items were incredibly popular and retailers simply could not keep up with demand. To help cope, stores were increasingly used as fulfillment centers.

The new “ship-from-store” option was not only an efficient way to move inventory, but also helped retailers use their stores when they were either completely closed or had limits on capacity. Kohl’s is one brand leading the way with this omnichannel operation. Between ship-from-store and buy online, pick up in store, nearly 40% of the company’s digital sales are now fulfilled by its stores.

These are some of the major trends we noticed this year. What trends or developments at the show stood out to you? Let me know.