with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleNRF 2021’s Verdict on Brick-and-Mortar Retail: Not Dead Yet
Like many massive trade shows this year, The National Retail Federation‘s (NRF) 2021 show has gone virtual. NRF is the world’s largest retail trade association composed of department stores, specialty shops, retail technology providers, chain restaurants, groceries, and independent retailers. Prior to the pandemic, the NRF filled the halls of the Jacob Javits Center in New York with the latest in retail innovation ranging from new in-store displays to touchless point-of-sale (POS) solutions and even grocery-bagging robots. The show is still scheduled to host its second iteration from June 6 to June 8, 2021, though this will also be a virtual event.
Even in its virtual state, the show certainly has an active audience as COVID-19, and its resulting global lockdowns, has dealt a huge blow to the retail sector over the last year. A Statista study revealed that the US retail sector saw a shocking 34.5% decrease in overall shopper volume from May 2019 to October 2020. This underlines the importance of foot traffic to the retail industry, which not only saw overall declines but also a variety of businesses closing down for good while others were forced to radically accelerate their e-commerce strategies.
E-commerce is the pandemic’s flip side, seeing as the pandemic has propelled online retail at an unprecedented rate. More Statista research reveals that “retail platforms have undergone an unprecedented global traffic increase between January 2019 and June 2020, surpassing even holiday season traffic peaks. Overall, retail websites generated almost 22 billion visits in June 2020, up from 16.07 billion global visits in January 2020.”
What represents the details of this jump is a topic of hot debate in the retail industry, but it’s undeniable that online retail has greatly benefited, including not only grocery delivery companies, like Amazon Fresh and Instacart, but also food delivery organizations, like Seamless and Uber Eats. With the pandemic fueling such a wide dichotomy in a single market space, it was inevitable that this topic as well as the relative futures of the brick-and-mortar store versus the online retail industry became the focus of this year’s NRF conference.
Mike George, NRF Chairman and President and CEO of Qurate Retail Group Inc., opened the virtual event with a keynote titled “Retail’s Resilience.” George discussed how despite the crushing effect that the pandemic has had on brick-and-mortar retail, the industry remains resilient. George was also quick to point out that the retail sector overall, while certainly hurt by COVID-19, has also survived and rebounded far better than many experts predicted.
“Our industry demonstrated remarkable agility and resiliency throughout this crisis. Many retailers stayed open serving as economic first-responders, while other pivoted to serving customers in new ways,” George said.
He recounted how retailers and grocery stores were some of the first businesses to employ social distancing norms, enforce mask-wearing, limit the number of customers, and adopt increased sanitation protocols. Retailers, he said, offered vital support to their communities by offering discounts to essential workers, fundraising, and distributing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). According to NRF’s recent consumer survey, the majority of consumers (61%) depend on physical stores being open to meet the shopping needs of their families.
“The retail sector employs 32 million people and supports 52 million American jobs,” George said. “Retail contributes 3.9 trillion to annual GDP and grew 3.8% in 2019.” He added that innovation has become a key pivot point for retailers of all sizes during the pandemic. Innovation comes by way of expanding businesses beyond brick-and-mortar operations, through the use of direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies, like selling on social media or creating experiences and apps for customers.
Pivoting Customer Experience for Retailers
A key session at NRF 2021 was titled “Remapping the Customer Experience: A Reinvention Initiative.” This talk analyzed the challenges that the pandemic has posed to retail stores, but also detailed a variety of innovations and reinventions that helped clever retailers improve their customer experience (CX), which directly contributed to them remaining afloat.
Krista Bourne, SVP of Consumer Sales and Operations at Verizon, the division that manages the company’s huge network of retail stores, said her company saw itself as an essential service during the early days of the pandemic. She went on to detail how Verizon found new ways to stay available to its customers despite widespread lockdowns.
“When COVID-19 first became a situation for us, we saw users trying to shore up their equipment, we saw a lot of folks come in to ensure they had the appropriate services like Internet access to their home or reliable mobile devices,” explained Bourne.
Verizon, Bourne said, was operational since day one of the pandemic. “Because we have the benefit of layered distribution and partners, we did close several retail stores and were down 30% of our corporate fleet. But we had partnerships that helped us continue to serve customers.” She also detailed helpful innovations at Verizon that included scheduling on-site appointments, as well as a very quick move towards touchless and mobile payments.
“Customers have responded very well to appointment-setting. At Verizon this year, we’ve already handed 1.4 million customer appointments. This was not something that was in our strategic plan, initially. The pandemic exposed curbside (pickup) as a fulfillment option, something we were not expecting to bring to market this year,” Bourne said, adding that contactless payments, similarly, saw a significant uptick.
“Nine out of 10 transactions happening in our corporate fleet are touchless. You can come in, you can shop, make a payment, accept terms and conditions, all without touching a pen or sharing a device,” Bourne said.
Dealing With Demand Shift
Another big change is the radical shift in what consumers are buying, not simply how they’re buying it. “We saw all our major demand streams disrupted,” said Fokke De Jong, CEO and Founder of Suitsupply, an omnichannel men’s clothing company that has a global retail store presence, but also sells online through various social channels.
“People don’t have to go work anymore, they don’t have [physical] meetings, they don’t have to go to job interviews. That’s a big demand stream for us. Events and occasions like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and graduations were all disrupted.” To overcome this challenge, Suitsupply drummed up its online and social channels to engage customers to get fashion advice from style experts through virtual appointments.
Suitsupply’s virtual consultations had a real-word payoff. Customers could come in to a retail store fitting room and safely try on any items they’d previously chosen. “We can prepare a customer’s fitting room for when they’re ready to come in and try clothes on,” De Jong said adding that subsequent analytics showed that these innovations helped improve the overall in-store experience, making it more efficient and more engaging.
Difficulties Ahead, But Also Opportunities
Suitsupply’s example of adapting to a new and difficult retail situation while increasing its sales opportunities is what this year’s NRF was shorting loud and clear. The coming months will be difficult, but by blending innovation with resilience, many retailers are predicting less doom and gloom and more sales opportunities.
“As consumers shifted much of their shopping online, retailers expanded ecommerce capabilities and integrated them with in-store options — in many cases completing projects in a few months that previously would have taken years,” said Matthew Shay, President and CEO of the NRF. If retailers can maintain this increased deployment pace without succumbing to the challenge of big shifts in consumer preferences, 2021 could be a landmark year for many U.S. sellers.
Have any questions you need answered about retail tech? Subscribe to the PCMag Small Business UpdatePCMag Small Business Update newsletter and join the [email protected][email protected] business community on LinkedIn, where you can connect directly with vendors, other retail professionals like yourself, and PCMag’s editors.
keyword: NRF 2021’s Verdict on Brick-and-Mortar Retail: Not Dead YetNRF 2021’s Verdict on Brick-and-Mortar Retail: Not Dead YetNRF 2021’s Verdict on Brick-and-Mortar Retail: Not Dead Yet