the effects of COVID-19. 

After facing a year of crisis, the industry is facing a great deal of uncertainty in how 2021 will unfold. Between emerging innovations, drastic shifts in consumer behaviour, and economic expectations, 2021 calls for retailers to continue to be nimble in the wake of change. 

We asked industry experts what emerging trends they’ve observed across retail! Here is what some thought leaders had to say...


Emerging Trends in Retail for 2021 According to the Experts

April 14, 2021

After the arrival of a global pandemic, all predictions for 2020 were totally upended. The virus impacted the daily life of individuals everywhere, but it hit the retail industry particularly hard. As we head into 2021, retailers still find operations to be shaped by the effects of COVID-19

After facing a year of crisis, the industry is facing a great deal of uncertainty in how 2021 will unfold. Between emerging innovations, drastic shifts in consumer behaviour, and economic expectations, 2021 calls for retailers to continue to be nimble in the wake of change. 

We asked industry experts what emerging trends they’ve observed across retail! Here is what some thought leaders had to say…

Debbie Hauss, Executive Director of Content, Retail TouchPoints 

Profile photo of Debbie Hauss

Retail TouchPoints (RTP) is an online publishing network for retail executives, providing an array of editorial content designed to guide retail companies in their quest for long-term success. Debbie Hauss, Executive Director of Content for RTP, identifies three major trends that she’s seen in the year already:

Expanding, Niche Marketplaces

While Amazon and Alibaba certainly will retain a large percentage of marketplace transactions, niche marketplaces are emerging and growing. Many small retail businesses and DTC brands have struggled during the pandemic, and these segment-specific marketplaces are giving them a wider consumer base.

Contactless Commerce is Catching On

A trend that started as a convenience-based offering, contactless commerce now serves a greater good — health and safety for shoppers and store employees. When shoppers return to stores in greater numbers, they will be looking for  less in-person contact and more ways to interact with the brand digitally in the physical store.

Social and Influencer Selling

Social platforms like TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook are strengthening their value as commerce channels. Using live streaming video, AR tools, Influencers and data-based targeting, these platforms are becoming another important, relevant touch point in the customer journey.

Neil Saunders, GlobalData

Profile photo of Neil Saunders

Neil Saunders is the Managing Director and Retail Analyst at GlobalData Retail, and he’s worked with retailers to further GlobalData’s research-powered mission to help retailers maximize success by understanding the sector.  Here are four changes he has seen unfold so far:

Remain Nimble as We Reopen

The world is pivoting to a “new normal” and consumer behaviors such as revenge spending have begun to surface. As the economy and society starts to reopen, we will see new spending patterns start to emerge. Sectors like apparel, which were in the doldrums in 2020, will start to grow as people focus on clothing for social occasions. However, the challenge for retail is that more consumers will want to spend on experiences such as travel which they weren’t able to do last year, this means retailers will need to work hard to grab consumer spend.

Margin Compression 

While sales growth will be solid, retailers face a lot of costs including investing in their online and multichannel capabilities. This, along with a shift to less profitable online sales, will crimp margins. Some retailers are carrying a lot of debt from the pandemic disruption so they will need to review and reset the economics of their business model.

Polarization Will Continue

The pandemic has sharpened the distinction between retail winners and losers, and this will continue into 2021. Healthy consumer spending levels will not be a tide that floats all boats. Polarization will also be seen in malls with good ones thriving and weaker ones really struggling. The environment is of survival of the fittest.

Format Flex

Retailers will abandon the old cookie cutter approach of opening the same type of store across the US. They will trial and test new formats designed to target different consumers and suited to different types of location and market. Some of these formats will be linked to omnichannel services such as having a physical presence to enable digital sales to be fulfilled by physical stores.

Cathy Donovan Wagner, CEO at RetailMavens

Profile photo of Catherine Donovan Wagner

RetailMavens was founded with the mission to help thousands of independent retailers to increase profit through consulting, retail training courses, and resources.

Cathy Donovan Wagner, Founder & President at RetailMavens is of the mindset that you should throw out your old to do list! Here are a few ways that your 2021 business shouldn’t look much like your 2020 business:

Customer Journey

While your goal has always been to connect with your customers and provide the best service possible, in 2021 it’s time to upgrade your customer experience strategy.

This includes reaching your customers personally, one-on-one via texts, personal emails and phone calls – this has become even more impactful in 2021 as fewer stores are doing it, which means you’ll stand out from the crowd.

You should also be increasing your customer touch points in 2021 – but keep in mind that customers are more distracted and they are reading less and scrolling more – so keep emails short and include more pictures! 

Social Selling

Just like last year, being intentional about connecting with your customers on social media is crucial, but in 2021 you also need to plan to sell through social media. Online selling doesn’t just happen through your website anymore – consumers are expecting stores to sell through social channels, offering this service is not optional in 2021.

Retail trends also show us that moving forward, you’ll have to pay to play online. Honestly it’s shocking that social media in particular, was free for as long as it was. This means that to truly reach all of your people, you’ll have to allocate part of your advertising budget to online and social media ads.


Because the emphasis is shifting more and more to online selling, your 2021 buying needs to change accordingly. Previously we’ve always planned in-store inventory by class or category. 

Online however, the focus is on items, which means a “Go Big or Go Home” strategy is more important than ever. Order deep, rather than wide, to maximize all your online sales efforts. 


To sustain all these new trends and changes in your business, your team has to be completely overhauled to support you – you simply cannot do it on your own.

You can no longer look at yourself as just a store owner, or run your store like a hobby. You are now the CEO of your business – this is a huge mindset shift! Embrace the role of CEO and pay yourself like a CEO!

Joe Skorupa, Consultant and Strategic Advisor

Profile photo of Joe Skorupa

Joe is widely recognized as an influential voice in the retail sector. As a consultant and strategic advisor, he contributes to RIS News (Retail Info Systems News), delivering insights and leadership surrounding business and technology trends that are shaping the retail market. 

Joe’s take on how retailers can prepare for emerging trends in 2021 involves staying competitive in channels that they may have not engaged with:

Proliferation & Retail’s Race to Catch Up

The biggest trend in retail in 2021 is the race to catch up to the proliferation of marketplaces and social platforms that offer selling opportunities. Retailers not only need strategies to compete on big marketplaces like Amazon, Alibaba, eBay, Google and Rakuten, but they also must quickly respond to the launch of retailer-owned marketplaces by Walmart, Target, Kroger, Chewy and others. 

And now that retailers have strategies for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest they need to quickly pivot to the boom in Tik Tok, Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Instagram Reels, and others. 

Melissa Gonzalez, CEO, The Lionesque Group 

Profile photo of Melissa Gonzalez

The Lionesque Group (TLG) is a team of retail strategies and experimental retail designers who redefine physical spaces. When it comes to creating immersive brand experiences in brick and mortar spaces, Melissa Gonzalez is taking brands to the next level. 

Stores are still a vital part of the retail experience, especially as restrictions lift and vaccinations become readily available. Melissa has the pulse on how retailers are developing strategies and approaches for the future of their physical retail locations, and retirates that customer experience is more important than ever:

Retail Redefining Experiences

2021 will be a year of refining the in-store environment to create experiences that deliver upon points of gratification. With the rise of flexible fulfillment and contactless payments, retail can easily become overladen with transactional moments, versus harnessing the opportunity to transform from click and collect to click and connect with your customers.

Bob Phibbs from Retail Doc

Profile photo of Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor

Bob Phibbs is an expert retail consultant, an influential voice for brick-and-mortar retailers today. With an understanding of retail’s ups and downs, Bob is no stranger to retail’s fight in the trenches of change and turbulence. 

Bob agrees with many of the voices across the retail sector that consumer spending is about to spike dramatically:

Historic Revenge Spending Spree

Consumers are chomping at the bit to get back out to their lives and splurge. As regulations lift, more shoppers get vaccinated, and stores reopen, pent-up customers are eager to leave mandated lockdowns and spend stimulus checks in physical stores. 

We will likely see a once-in-a-generation spending spree that will continue through 2022.

Respond Today to Tomorrow’s New Era

2020 was a challenging year for the retail industry. But as we recover from the obstacles that we overcame, we can create opportunities for future growth. We know the omni-channel retailers that adapted quickly and streamlined their store communications were the most successful.  

Now that retail has survived the cataclysm, retailers can thrive. Brands must have the courage to continue to adapt to trends that will accelerate post-pandemic: the challenge of globalization, the re-shaping of physical retail, and the need for empowering frontline workers.

We know now that maintaining a robust communications infrastructure was crucial when navigating the coronavirus pandemic. Retail success in the future will depend on being able to make use of consumer feedback and sales data, innovate quickly and iterate to refine innovations. This means providing a single source of truth for management and sales teams.  

That’s why we created the only solution on the market that combines communication and task management to drive flawless store execution, enabling brands to craft incredible customer experiences.

Cathy Donovan Wagner Founder & President at RetailMavens, said it best. “This is truly such an exciting time to be in retail – your people need you now more than ever, and it’s easier than ever to reach them.” We couldn’t agree more! 

If you’re ready to tackle the new era of retail, reach out. We would love to demonstrate how Retail Zipline can support your company’s transformation.

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