Top Trends For Brick and Mortar Retail In 2021: Insights From 26 Experts

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

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

What are the top trends that will shape brick and mortar retail in 2021?

Shep Hyken, NYT Best Selling Business Author 

"Continued emphasis on health and safety"

There will be a major emphasis on health and safety in response to COVID-19, as we’ve already seen. Heading into 2021, it’s going to be more important than ever that companies, especially brick-and-mortar retailers, create a safe and healthy environment that instills confidence in their customers.

Increased adoption of cashless checkout

Brick-and-mortar retailers will increasingly implement cashless checkout systems to better accommodate health and safety concerns—as well as convenience demands—that many of today’s consumers have.

Retailers will be present both online and offline

It will be critical for traditionally-offline retailers to adopt an online presence—otherwise, it will be extremely difficult for them to stay afloat. The trend isn’t a full pivot to online-only retail, but rather an addition to their offline commerce offerings.

There are ways to engage consumers online that bring them into your physical store. You can let them preview available merchandise, show them what they can expect when they come to your stores, or even book appointments to visit your store.

Retailers will cater to mission shoppers

Is your location part of a bigger footprint, like a mall? Or is it it’s own destination that shoppers are traveling to?

Moving into 2021, shoppers will be less leisurely about their shopping trips. This means that wandering malls as a social outing, especially indoor malls, will be less appealing. Shoppers will be more intentional about what physical locations they’re visiting.

Neil Saunders, Managing Director of Retail at GlobalData

"There are a whole host of factors that will impact physical retail this year. Foremost among these is the ongoing growth of omnichannel which has exploded during the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down. This will require many retailers to adapt store operations and configurations to better service online demand. Another trend will be increased format flex where retailers will employ a variety of different store types to service different locations. Having a one-size-fits-all approach to stores no longer works, so retailers need to be more flexible in their approach to store development. Using space effectively will be another area of focus for physical stores because, unfortunately, a lot of retailers have store footprints which are too large relative to demand. This might mean we see more creative partnerships such as Ulta opening in Target and Sephora taking space in Kohl’s. Finally, retailers will look to streamline store operations by using technology to automate processes, especially in fulfilment, and labor-intensive operations like checkouts."

Joan Insel, Vice President at CallisonRTKL 

"Hybrid retail, which combines the strengths of online shopping with that of the physical store. Brick-and-mortar stores will still provide a thrill to the senses—seeing, touching, hearing, smelling the product. But stores must also provide online order and fulfillment options such as in store or curbside pickup, same-day, local delivery, or other traditional shipping methods."

Sales associates, who are digitally empowered and well trained. Stores will rediscover the importance of savvy sales associates who know how to connect with their customers and provide an exemplary personal shopping experience.

Consumer shopping behaviors, which are always changing, but have changed faster than ever. The coronavirus has quickly and significantly changed consumer shopping patterns for the short term—and possibly for the long term as well.

John Federman, CEO of JRNI

"In September 2020, we surveyed 2,000 consumers to understand the effects of COVID-19 on shopping behaviors — and what this means for retailers longer-term. Trends for the coming year include:"

More personalized experiences. The standard transactional shopping process will be elevated to more of an experience — personal, safe, and one-on-one. While the pandemic drove social distancing, it also elevated the need for and importance of personalized experiences for consumers.  47% of consumers said the human-touch aspect represents an integral element of their retail shopping experience— one they increasingly crave, regardless of whether they shop online or in-person. 

 Sustained new shopping methods. 36% of consumers surveyed checked out new shopping modes for brick and mortar, including remote personal shopping appointments and scan-and-go apps.Indications point to these behaviors enduring for 2021.

 Appointment-based shopping.  Many consumers expressed that the introduction of shopping by appointment proved a revelation during the pandemic, as they were hyper-wary of crowds or encountering in-store queues that could compromise their ability to maintain social distancing. They want retailers to continue to create more of these concierge-style services, so they can schedule and conduct a planned in-store consultation that is personalized around their individual needs.

Anna Brettle, Founder of Stellar

"Omnichannel – Offline is online, online is offline:"

Connecting consumers across different platforms is enabling retailers to bring the convenience of online shopping to offline shops and stores, and the immersive environment of offline shopping to the world of e-commerce. While the general trend has seen offline retailers moving into online by establishing e-commerce divisions of their businesses, more lately, we have seen online retailers developing a bricks and mortar presence. Going into 2021, we can expect to see brands continue to create offline experiences that leverage the technology and convenience of ecommerce.

Smaller Stores and Pop ups

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge strain on traditional retail and led to the temporary closure of many bricks-and-mortar stores, naturally accelerating the shift towards e-commerce purchases. Consumers are adapting their shopping habits to suit a new normal where choices may be more limited. The pop-up shop concept will grow in prevalence where retailers build intimate branded experiences where consumers can shop and have items shipped to their homes. With the appeal of short-term leases, some stores are ahead of the curve and are even renting out their spaces by the hour which gives brands much more flexibility and can also provide greater interactivity with consumers than traditional physical stores.

Immersive design and product experts

Brands and retailers are now starting to invest in digital design to create beautiful, dynamic and interactive virtual showrooms that recreate many of the immersive and experiential touchpoints we associate with physical stores. The role of a sales employee is also being transformed to become virtual brand ambassadors.

John Moss, CEO of English Blinds

"Remote assistance, such as by video comms and using “help” buttons to communicate remotely with sales staff, are likely to see far greater levels of uptake in 2020, as is the integration of RFID and another smart tech to enable shoppers to find out more about the goods they’re viewing without face-to-face interaction."

Directing the customer journey, in a similar way to Ikea’s mandated routes around the store but less annoying, is also likely to become popular, as this will help enable stores to manage the paths taken by shoppers around the store, and keep them physically distanced from each other.

Julia Raymond, Editor in Chief, RETHINK Retail

"Behind the brick-and-mortar trends I predict in 2021, there are two overarching drivers: convenience and safety. First, consumer demand for convenience in retail is not new; the demand has been steadily increasing in parallel with all things digital since the birth of online commerce. When the pandemic hit, everyone was blindsided and any corny marketing plays on “2020 vision” came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, the desire for convenience reached all-time highs. Why? Because convenience was and will continue to be, tied to the second driver: safety. A heightened focus on safety has reflected in consumer behavior. Shopping as an activity shifted away from discovery and almost fully to intent-based purchases. BOPIS, curbside pickup and “ship from store” options went from a nice to have to a service critical for survival. Amazingly, many retailers rolled out these solutions at a mind-blowing pace."

With convenience and safety in mind as the foundational drivers, the top 3 trends that I predict will shape brick-and-mortar in 2021 include: 

Dedicated shared spaces (not pop ups): When I was predicting 2020 retail trends, “unexpected partnerships” was at the top of my list. And it’s come true with too many examples to name, many out of necessity. Most recently, I think of Sephora’s partnership with Instacart and then with Kohl’s following Target’s partnership announcement with ULTA beauty. These partnerships signal a move away from the “pop up” trend and towards dedicated shared spaces that create synergies among the retailers and convenience for consumers. 

Health and wellness retail: Retail operators will have the opportunity for redevelopment, especially as big department stores continue facing challenges and bankruptcies and, in turn, lose some of their historical influence over operations. This redevelopment will be driven by the rise of consumer demand for health and wellness products and services, including cannabis retail, as health became more of a focus in 2020. Without as much travel, open-air markets will need to cater to locals and nearby visitors looking for a bit of entertainment. We’ll again see the importance of great food and immersive environments that offer a sense of discovery through unique retail concepts.  

Contactless Connected Stores: People will increasingly want to use their phone as the controller across touchpoints such as interactive displays, curbside or in-store pickup or checkout, etc. This capability provides a safer and contactless experience that people can feel good about when shopping in our new normal. 

Imogen Wethered, CEO and founder of Qudini

"Curbside collection for online shopping became incredibly popular during the pandemic, as it offered a safe and convenient way for customers to collect orders without waiting for delivery. In 2021, this demand will only intensify as customers become used to this new initiative."

Consumers will become less tolerant for queues outside and inside of stores. Going forward, this reluctance to wait in queues will only strengthen and consumers will favour retailers that prioritise the customer experience by allowing them to join virtual queues or book appointments for store visits or service ahead of time.

Virtual service will become a must-have. Online shopping surged during the pandemic, but one of the biggest pain points online shoppers came up against was the inability to receive personalised one-to-one service. In the last few months, a number of leading retailers have offered customers the ability to book virtual service over video or phone with consultants, allowing them to answer any concerns or provide them with expert advice and support. This service is hugely beneficial to the sales funnel, as it helps to convert customers on the fence as well as build relationships, generate interest and awareness and make retailers stand out from the competition.

Carol Spieckerman, President of Spieckerman Retail 

"Multi-format forays – Just about every retailer is a multi-format operator these days, even ones that before were defined by a singular format. Former “big box” retailers like Walmart are operating small, medium, and large formats as well as pick-up and drive-through locations. Target is operating urban and college stores. Dollar General has been testing urban formats and concepts targeted to higher-income shoppers."

Flagships will fly – In contrast to the small format movement that has gained traction over the years, flagship stores will also proliferate as more brands seek to own their destiny and as digital natives seek to make a strong brick and mortar statement without investing in large-scale footprints. Nike is a great example of the former and brands like Glossier and The RealReal exemplify the latter.

From unplanned to intentional – Even as vaccines are distributed and shoppers feel safer returning to stores, old habits will die hard. The rush to online shopping during COVID-19 has acclimated massive numbers of consumers to conducting research and comparing prices. Shoppers will be well-informed and deliberate when they shop in stores, making it critical for retailers to up their games across store layout, visual merchandising, and convenient check-out. Investing in practical tools like mobile navigational assistance should take precedence over constant promotions.

Kristen Moore, CMO of inVia Robotics

"Microfulfillment, where smaller fulfillment centers are being set up closer to customers in urban areas to reduce delivery times. This was a trend that started before 2020 that has accelerated because of a surplus of idled retail space. You’ll see a lot of stores reallocating retail space to set up e-commerce distribution operations. This will let stores take advantage of one of the other top trends, where customers don’t come into stores to browse and buy. They place their orders ahead of time online and come to the stores to pick them up. This requires a shift of resources and focus to the back-end fulfillment operations to support a good online customer experience." 

Buy online and pick up in store (BOPIS), where customers shop and buy online and pick up their orders at a store instead of having them delivered. This is another trend that requires a shift of resources and focus to e-commerce operations to support a good online customer experience. The importance of merchandising and product selection in the buying process shifts from in-store to the website.

Reorganizing operations to shift sales from in-store to online. Some portion of retail traffic will come back once the pandemic ends, but there is some portion that won’t. People have become accustomed to the convenience of e-commerce, and they’ll increase the proportion of shopping they do online. In fact, 40% of people say they intend to make more online purchases post-COVID. In order to maintain sales growth, retailers will have to shift a bigger portion to e-commerce.

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

"To overcome cooking fatigue during the pandemic, retailers are inspiring customers with new ideas in the form of easy recipes, fresh ingredients, and meal solutions. Layering onto traditional consumer values—freshness, affordability, and convenience—sustainability, local sourcing, minimal packaging, and time-saving products such as pre-cut fruits and vegetables show signs of increasing importance."

Additionally, look for enhanced visibility into the type of business offering products. Retailers will showcase products originating from diverse and minority-owned companies such as women, Black, Asian-Indian, Hispanic, LGBT, Asian-Pacific, and veteran-owned companies through clear signage.

Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends

"The trend towards locally-focused stores will continue. A lot of customers have reported a desire to continue to shop locally after they’ve been vaccinated, and many are likely to carry on working from home part-time or full-time. As such, retailers will increasingly be curating and tailoring stores to a local area rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to their portfolios. A great example of this is Nike which continues to open new store formats that are more local customer focused."

Partnerships may also come into play more. Recently we’ve seen Next trialling click-and-collect and return hubs in Morrisons car parks of Morrisons. Sephora is now putting mini-shops into Kohl’s. Ulta Beauty is doing the same with Target. Kohl’s already has an existing tie-up with Amazon that turns its stores into Amazon returns points. I think all retailers are looking at how to maximise the value of real estate while reducing costs. By partnering with another company, smaller brands can offer something they don’t already have, such as additional access points or delivery hubs. Retailers with large store footprints or car parking facilities can boost revenue by renting that space to others.

We’re expecting resale to be a major trend for 2021 – across categories such as fashion, furniture and electronics. Online resale has exploded – next year we expect that more physical spaces will embrace it. Globetrotter now sells second-hand goods in stores in Germany. Levi’s has a new London concept store with an exclusive range of repaired, reimagined and recycled Levi’s products. Resale also lends itself well to subscriptions and memberships – customers could pay to access rare or vintage items, and receive credit or bonuses when they resell their own unwanted products.

Lynn Xu, Chief of Retail Solution, Clobotics

"Uncertainty will continue to dictate 2021 but by now brick and mortar stores are much more prepared to tackle consumer stock-up, strain on supply chain and ability to provide a safer shopping environment. After meeting basic safety and assortment needs dictated by the virus situation, retailers now need to find new differentiation other than curb side pick-up, better online capability, more secured shopping experience."

Indulging categories will see a better year as people now live in the new normal and need to compensate for their restricted outdoor experience such as catering, traveling, spa, etc. Contactless technology and social commerce will continue to grow but human nature of experiencing for products and services will not subside. Brick and mortar stores have to do even better to help customers find their product and find it faster, in and out of the stores in the shortest time and least contact possible.

Sarah Assous, CMO of Zoovu  

"Shopping by appointment. The need and want to touch and feel clothes is still desired by most consumers, making the ability to visit a store, a strong value driver for retailers – however stores must adhere to government guidelines with ‘hygiene transparency’ remaining a core factor in how consumers behave. The need to unify the digital and physical experience has become more important than ever – I predict that we will see an increase in different types of immersive experiences to help engage and educate customers, such as leveraging a digital assistant experience to gather information ahead of the in-store visit, to provide an exceptional and personalized customer experience. Booking store visits (via an app or online) will remove waiting times and allow for a more immersive and comfortable experience. This is something that Adidas has recently adopted within their London store and has proven to be a big hit with consumers."

Physical retailers will play a larger role in the distribution of products. As click & collect/curbside pick up become the norm, retailers will transform individual stores into critical components of the supply chain, enabling new ways to shop and get immediate assistance to queries of returns, without the need to speak to an agent using online customer service. In the 2020 holiday season, Macy’s partnered with DoorDash to enable same-day delivery during the holidays, to tap into this emerging trend of new shopping behavior and enable delivery services directly from the nearest stores, rather than their warehouses to cater to consumers’ increasing needs.

Empathy: 2020 was an extraordinarily difficult time for most of us – and consumers won’t forget which of their favorite retailers went above and beyond with transparent communication about wait times, product availability, and effects on their supply chain. The biggest trend we have seen is: retailers demonstrating a commitment to keeping their employees and customers safe during the pandemic. If you look at big box stores like Target or Walmart, both announced in August they would be closed for Thanksgiving as a clear signal to consumers: we will not put our employees in harm’s way in the pursuit of profit.

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

"Digitally enabled experiences, resale/re-commerce and social commerce will be trends we will see in 2021."

Brick and mortar retail as it was pre-pandemic, will not be the same. Consumer behavior has shifted and adoption rates of using online shopping have increased. In order to drive traffic back in a physical space, digital will need to be incorporated. In-store experiences will need to shift to include showroom shopping, live-streaming, and smaller footprints. Using existing stores as a way to fulfill online orders is already underway. Leveraging existing real estate as mini distribution centers can allow retailers to have a smaller footprint and a more engaging way to shop. Imagine being able to walk a store and build a cart as you go of items you want, check out on your mobile device and a store associate pulls the items in the back and brings them to you or directly to your car. Talk about a new way to shop!

Consumers have also become more socially conscious of what they have and the footprint they are making on the environment. Socially conscious consumers want to make a difference and the trend in resale is only going to increase. Websites that help connect consumers to previously owned fashion and housewares are thriving. Brick and mortar can bring this experience to life with the thrill of the hunt—everyone loves to find a good deal on a good quality piece and its even better when they know they are making a difference when shopping.

Social commerce has been a strong accelerant for online-only brands. Leveraging social platforms to increase brand awareness and to provide instant gratification to online shoppers will continue to increase. For traditional retailers, they have typically used their own website or social pages to direct consumers to products. They have to be more engaging, more relevant and be more available to a wider array of shoppers.

Rachel LaConti, Senior Manager of Location Partnerships, Happy Returns 

"The pandemic caused a historic shift in the retail landscape, including a massive spike in eCommerce sales. To account for this, expect to see creative methods of increasing foot traffic to encourage people to come shop in person. This may include:"

Omnichannel offerings, like Buy Online, Pick Up In Store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup. In order to bridge the gap between online and offline shopping experiences – and to accommodate those who want to spend less time in store – convenient offerings will become the norm. This is true for returns as well. Merchants that allow online shoppers to return in person, whether to their own brick-and-mortar stores or to a third-party drop-off location, will have the greatest chance at increasing loyalty through convenience.

Offering unique in-store services to increase foot traffic will be important in 2021. Despite the spike in eCommerce, we’re still seeing shoppers crave in-store experiences. Paper Source hosts Happy Returns Return Bars, for example, allowing shoppers from other merchants to drop off returns at their locations without needing a box or label. A recent academic study validated the service, showing that new Paper Source customers that were sourced via the Return Bar channel spend 21% more than existing patrons. They also return to stores later without a return, simply to buy Paper Source items.

Companies will start to charge for returns by mail. As all major carriers raised their rates in 2020 to accommodate the increase in eCommerce shipments, merchants will need to find a way to counteract those costs. While we know that shoppers expect at least one free option for returning items, no one ever said that option had to be mail returns. Instead, we’re seeing more and more retailers charge for returns by mail, while offering free and convenient returns to their store or a third-party drop-off like Happy Returns.

Debbie Hauss, Executive Director of Content, Retail TouchPoints 

"Brick-and-mortar has changed dramatically and retailers will need to respond to survive. Top trends to watch include:"

The new agile store format: this is an update to the pop-up trend that has been evolving over the years. Less costly, turnkey retail formats that are temporary and rotating will help new brands emerge and existing brands pivot to different formats.

Hybrid shopping: Retailers need to meld digital, physical, and social shopping experiences to meet consumers successfully at every touchpoint. One example is Beautycounter, which is offering livestreaming from the back of the store.

Community engagement in a touchless world: As retail struggles to re-emerge post-COVID-19, businesses will need to find new, creative ways to engage with their customers. The store can be transformed into a hub that brings the brand community together for more than just product purchase.

Marina Strauss, Writer and former retailing reporter at The Globe and Mail and Board member of Canadian Journalism Foundation

"A big bricks-and-mortar retail trend in 2021 will be keeping shoppers and customers safe from Covid-19, having proper protocol, limiting the number of shoppers, and having hand sanitizer and masks available."

Most shoppers still will want to protect themselves, even when the new vaccines start to be administered. Physical stores will cut back on the variety of products they carry, and will shift many items to online only. And many retailers will shut their weakest physical stores and focus on fewer, high-profile stores. Many retailers will be forced into bankruptcy and close or scale back operations significantly.

Werner Jorgensen, Marketing & Sales expert at Tooleto

"Social Commerce – Social commerce is emerging, thanks to the announcement of Instagram and Facebook shops. Since many people already shop from social media pages, social commerce will add to online shopping convenience, and people will find the experience very smooth. With COVID around and brick and mortar retail stores looking for online alternatives, this could be an important one."

AR-Powered Shopping Experiences – According to a survey, Augmented Reality is one of the top technologies individuals seek to assist themselves. With 51% saying they would be willing to use AR technology to assess products. Since many people shop online, AR will bridge the gap between digital and physical experience. AR in retails has been around since 2018; however, it is expected to become a priority in 2021.

Ethical and Values-Based Brands – While transparency, values, and ethics are not considered very important thus far, they are becoming more and more vital to users, and it’s about time brands consider them too. At this point, so many people have had a bad experience with online shopping that they now find it hard to trust a new source for purchase. Shoppers now evaluate retailers based on their ethics and values and then decide to buy.

Ray Ko, Senior E-commerce Manager at ShopPOPDisplays

"As a result of COVID-19, 64% of consumers still prefer to shop from local businesses making a positive contribution to communities, and this trend will continue. People will also plan their store visits further in advance using technology like search engines to help them discover and research products they wish to buy. This will make online search an even more important channel in 2021." 

Consumers will buy less and buy better, patronizing businesses that focus on ethical and sustainable credentials. Brick and mortar retailers will also have to get creative in differentiating themselves—harnessing technologies that deliver compelling physical experiences in-store, and enable the sharing of compelling content with online audiences.

Patricia Huddleston, Professor of Retailing at Michigan State University

"Until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, these three things will shape how brick and mortar retailers do business in 2021. Creating and maintaining a safe shopping environment for both customers and employees will be of paramount importance."

Unless consumers feel safe shopping in person, they will stay away. Increasingly, consumers are concerned with how retailers treat their employees and will patronize retailers that are concerned about their employee’s health. Second, continuing to provide convenience will resonate with consumers. For example, some retailers are editing their merchandise assortments, offering fewer choices. This facilitates consumer decision making. Store layouts will be adjusted to improve wayfinding through in-store signage and give consumers room to maneuver. This also increases safety.

Eric Grindley, CEO and founder of Esquire Advertising

"Faced with increasing competition from e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers will continue to home in on their unique advantages while also inventing new ways to compensate for their respective drawbacks. For example, offline stores are increasingly experimenting with augmented reality technologies to allow customers to experience products in a more touchless and socially distant way."

Many are also taking advantage of being located closer to their customers than nationwide e-commerce brands and being able to deliver items directly to customers’ homes faster. 

Amanda Astrologo, Partner, The Park Avery Group 

"Continued emphasis on health and safety, for consumers and store teams. This is a given, but try to think beyond masks, wipes, and plexiglass and include messaging, branding, and customer experience."

Importance of omnichannel options for consumers and flawless execution of omnichannel processes throughout the buying and fulfillment journey.

Critical need for efficiency in inventory management – tighter assortment, improved productivity, enhanced demand management.

Making the best use of brick-and-mortar inventory—continuing the trend of leveraging stores as ‘warehouses,’ determining best use of labor, and enhancing store associate training to make all customer experiences seamless and unobstructed, with the overall objectives of increasing shopper satisfaction, ensuring consistency with the brand, and strengthening loyalty.

Sanford Stein, Founder of Retail Speak and Contributor to Forbes

"Less is more. There will continue to be fewer physical outlets with smaller footprints for most brands. This is a natural response to the shift to e-commerce, and a shift away from storing to exploring."

Localization will become the mantra for both major brands and property owners.

The fall-out of large chain specialty retailers will give rise to more, new local/regional niche brands, many of whom started as digital natives.

Social selling is powerful. Actively enlist micro-influencers to become brand ambassadors for your stores, it will offer huge payback.

Staci Pearlman, Co-founder of elfin los angeles

"Appointment Shopping – this cultivates a safe, personal experience for customers."

Virtual Shopping – this allows for a safe shopping experience without ever leaving the house.

Increased Support for Small Businesses – people want to support small businesses now more than ever, so when a brick and mortar is showing support for other small (especially local) businesses, it will help them stand apart from the rest.

Concierge-level Customer Service for All Customers – excelling at customer service, especially now, will make customers want to shop with you, rather than buy from more convenient sites like Amazon, Overstock, etc.

Damon Routzhan, Founder and CEO of Concrete Candles 

"Social media shopping or a term I like to put as “social commerce” will also become a trend in 2021 for as far as I can see. The reachability of a brand is massive on social media platforms, and it is relatively easier to engage the audience and convince them to purchase something from you there. During COVID the usage of social media and other digital platforms has immensely increased amongst people – an almost 30% increase in the usage. This has led to almost 41% saying that they’ve been purchasing things online. Half of these things that people are buying are what they would’ve bought from retail stores had the situation been friendly enough. Platforms such as Facebook Shop, and Snapchat’s Native Store for Brands, offers much more user-friendliness as compared to being redirected to a website. If social commerce can help to enhance the user experience, and provide a better shopping experience, then why not opt for this service? Facebook shops have seen a rise throughout 2020, and I expect this trend to only amplify in 2021. This will be an opportunity for brick and mortar stores to boost their sales through online platforms."