13 Experts Weigh In On The Future Of Brick and Mortar Retail [2021]

Our Future of Brick and Mortar Retail Series featured interviews with over 35 retailers, experts, and thought leaders who told us about the trends shaping the future of brick and mortar.

As a look into the series, here are some of our favorite responses:

In the midst of so much change and uncertainty, what’s the future of brick and mortar retail look like?

Raina Rusnak, Consumer Research & Insights Lead, Peapod Digital Labs

"Successful brick and mortar retailers will continue to develop personalized experiences and support shopping however the customer prefers to engage with brands—whether that’s in-store or online for delivery or pick-up." 

Leveraging mobile interfaces to aid with things like wayfinding and self-checkout will help simplify in-store shopping. Streamlining and personalizing the shopping experience through increased use of apps with value-added services, efficient order fulfillment, and contactless pay options will all be key to the future of brick and mortar retail.

Neil Saunders, Managing Director of Retail at GlobalData

"Despite some of the gloomy headlines, there is a bright future for brick and mortar retail. People like shopping in physical stores and the pandemic has actually shown that there is a very big role for stores to play in the retail ecosystem."

However, stores of the future will be multipurpose. They might be part fulfillment center, part pick-up point for online shoppers, part experience center for in-person shopping, and part service center to help customers with queries or problems. Stores that meet multiple needs are the ones that have the best prospects.

Imogen Wethered, CEO and founder of Qudini

"The future of brick and mortar retail will undoubtedly be omni-channel in nature." 

That’s not to say it will become redundant – brick and mortar is crucial to building engagement, strengthening relationships and driving sales – but consumers have changed their behaviours and there is a much greater awareness around online shopping, click and collect, virtual service and more.

This means retailers need to optimise their store portfolios to incorporate omni-channel elements into the customer journey. 

Lynn Xu, Chief of Retail Solution, Clobotics

"Brick and mortar stores will continue to exist as human nature of experiencing in real with 6 senses can’t be replaced online."

Shopping is a social activity. Brick and mortar retail needs to provide a better experience in terms of assortment, shopping environment, shopping route, the easiness to navigate and locate desired product, and experience of interacting with new products.

At the same time, provide better and seamless offline to online such as contactless payment, contactless and on-time delivery, after-sale service, smart replenishment of household staples. Overall, brick and mortar stores will be more an experience center, the chores will be increasingly replaced by technology.

John Federman, CEO of JRNI

"Public health is still a significant concern, as is the fatigue of staying in and staring at a screen. As such, retailers will need to deliver more than strong products to get shoppers back into the stores."

The experience economy is here, and that means consumers want to buy into more than a quick transaction. They want an experience that is personalized and unique to them, and it will be crucial for retailers to have the right technology to support that. This includes the ability to match the right staff to consumers based on their needs, the ability to book time for a one on one experience eliminating the interruption of others as well as ensuring that capacity is managed for social distance requirements.

The great thing about a human-to-human connection is that retailers can use it to provide a relationship that is truly personalized. An example would be a customer who booked an appointment to visit the store, and then is greeted by name by a staff member who has already picked out some items she thinks the customer might be interested in. Or a store assistant knowing the customer’s style and being able to suggest a new pair of boots based on the skirt she bought last week.

Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends

"Expect to see more digital-first brands move offline. As Covid caused many retail units to close, spaces are now cheaper and more attractive to online brands."

Brick and mortar retail will be less important for immediate selling, and more important for relationship building and marketing. Online ads have become vastly more expensive – stores may now be the cheaper method to connect with customers.

As physical and digital become more connected, physical spaces will get smaller, more experiential, and more flexible. These provide better ROI and let brands futureproof themselves in ever less certain futures.

Joshua Williams, Founding President of Fashion Consort

"More than ever, I think customers want to be seen and heard. They are paying for more than a product—a product that they can probably find anywhere." 

They want personalized service that takes their daily needs into consideration, beyond the typical demographic and psychographic markers. This means rethinking approaches for urban versus suburban stores. This means providing services such as tailoring and customization in-store, home delivery and curbside pick-up. This means engaging in local communities and providing services that align with these communities—for example, multi-lingual visual merchandising and customer service, stocking local brands, supporting local organizations, including mom & pop retailers, etc. Many of these things were already happening pre-Covid, as add-on services. These will now be expected.

Amanda Astrologo, Partner, The Parker Avery Group 

"Brick-and-mortar is not going away, and retailers must realize some areas were quite over-stored even pre-COVID, particularly in specialty apparel. Some of the changes and evolution were already on many retailers’ radar or roadmaps but these initiatives were accelerated with the pandemic and related disruptions." 

Brick-and-mortars will have to evolve even further and faster. Micro fulfillment and seamless customer experience will continue to be a focus.  Leaders will need to determine how to be more flexible and change processes quickly without chaos. Not only are product needs changing quickly, but so is store staff and customer expectations. 

All the pieces need to work together, so taking the time to understand the life of an item thru the customer journey (and back—return handling is also important) will be key.

Sarah Assous, CMO of Zoovu  

"Brick and mortar retail needs to change. There needs to be more innovation and more focus on the experiential." 

2020 has taught us to embrace digital-first in ways never expected. The bridge between online and offline is shorter than ever because businesses of all kinds and sizes have adapted to serve their customers in uncertain times.

While some businesses have struggled, others have diversified, pivoted and risen to the challenges of 2020 with remarkable speed to ensure customers are able to find and buy what they need while navigating a global pandemic. Most consumers are eager to support local businesses – however don’t be fooled – they will only support local, when their needs are met, and they can get what they need quickly and easily. Convenience is key.

Carol Spieckerman, President of Spieckerman Retail 

"Brick and mortar will be the new frontier, serving new purposes through innovative formats and technologies."

Automation will encroach and higher levels of technological savvy will be required of store associates. Stores will be further integrated with online and product assortments will continue to be optimized as retailers gauge which categories and products are better suited to eCommerce. Although safety has taken precedence throughout 2020, convenience will once again take center stage in 2021 and beyond.

Smart retailers will continue to build their convenience arsenals rather than attempting to curtail choice and steer shoppers into narrow options.

Joan Insel, Vice President at CallisonRTKL 

"We see a bright future and a whole host of new opportunities."

There may be fewer and smaller physical stores, but the entire retail experience will be more harmonious.

It’s important to remember that today’s consumers don’t make distinctions between shopping in-store, online, or with a mobile app, and they are equally comfortable with in-store or curbside pickup as well as same-day delivery or other shipping options.

Joanne Heyob, SVP of Operations Strategy & Design at WD Partners

"Retail is experiencing an accelerated evolution—mall dynamics need to change from old school thinking of having big anchor stores and food courts, to smaller concepts that incorporate a lifestyle and one-stop shopping."

Retailers no longer need 800+ stores in every mall in town. They have to get closer to the consumer and understand where they need an experiential store, where they can transition locations to a fulfillment center, and where they need to test out showrooms. Retailers that invest in technology and automation can save on labor costs and leverage the associates to truly engage with customers to drive sales.

Cami Zimmer, Chief Business Officer at Glympse

"To remain relevant, retailers need to adapt to technological changes today – and make sure to build valuable relationships with their customers. It’s important to remember that you can no longer afford to guess what your customers desire. Thanks to technology, we’re able to really get to know customers better and connect/interact with them." 

The habits we are forming as consumers right now are going to stick with us after the pandemic is over. Retailers who act on location-rich data to place products where customers are, then personalize the shopping experience to suit new habits will excel in the post-pandemic era.