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‘The New Normal Is There Is No Normal’: Retailers’ Insights for the Year Ahead

This time last year, the retail industry—us included—put forth its predictions for the year ahead. Not immune to good pun, the National Retail Federation even called its annual retail conference “2020 Vision”—a quip that trickled down to every retail news outlet and then some.

As it turned out, nobody could predict the transformation the retail industry would undergo in just one year. And while retail has seen major changes and challenges imposed by COVID-19, human ingenuity and the spirit of innovation was not lost on this industry. Primed with a fresh perspective, we spoke with three retailers about their vision of what the retail industry will look like in 2021 and beyond.



Courtney Hawkins,
VP of Retail at TheRealReal

As the pandemic starts to curb with the vaccine, I think we’ll enter a new normal that blends consumer behaviors prior to the pandemic, and also consumer behaviors during the pandemic.


I think about this in three categories: product, customer, and experience.


Product. Work from home will continue to live on, but days in the office will slowly come back, as will small social gatherings, schools, etc. This will shift the apparel category performance to the casual and more traditional gathering styles, like denim woven dresses. Casual will be here to stay for a while, but the buying behavior will shift into these other categories.


Customers. Customers will want to continue to shop with convenience, whether that’s shipped, BOPIS, curbside, or reserve in store. After this holiday season, I think returns will be the friction point retailers will need to solve for both internal operations and the customer experience. Customers will continue to look for retailers that reflect their values and will continue to aid where they shop.


TheRealReal opened its MidwestChicago Flagship in Oct 2020


 Experience. As we become more comfortable going out, the store experience will need to continue to evolve. Customers’ tolerance of pre-pandemic experienced behaviors in stores, such as waiting in lines or messy stores, will be a permanent deal-breaker for consumers. While seeing an increase in foot traffic to stores will be welcomed by retailers, now is the time for them to reimagine a new, better experience that will allow for speed, safety, a sense of escapism, and normalcy of a shopping journey.


I’m excited to see progress in curbing a pandemic will do for the retail business and overall communities, families, and society.



John Boline,
VP of Store Design at Starbucks

Brands with a clearly defined and effortless digital strategy that delivers on multi-channel deliverables will define success in 2021.

Digital has become table stakes and is a requirement for survival for retailers in food and beverage. But I have to say, those that continue to win will find success in their experience factor. We’ve already seen a shift from routinized customer occasions to those seeking a reward or an out-of-home experience to enjoy products and services in a safe and familiar way.


[Read: Starbucks Outlines Vision for the Future and Reaffirms Strategy for Continued Growth]


As the vaccine rolls out you will see this happening in an even more accelerated fashion where folks are looking for brands to uplift and give them that safe and out of quarantine experience that they’ve been craving for the past several months. Those that deliver on that will continue to win.




Dan Goldman,
VP of Strategy & Business Development at Gap Inc.


This time last year, no one could have predicted the year we’ve had in 2020 or the profound impact COVID-19 has had on the retail industry.

Well, I’d like to predict that 2021 will be a return to normal. I actually believe the new normal is there is no normal and 2021 will continue to be a year that requires agility to adapt.

Now, the good news is unlike last year, when retailers were caught off guard and had to react defensively to COVID-19, heading into 2021, retailers should benefit from the fact that they have had a year to plan and build.

The bad news is, not all retailers will be able to do this successfully, and as a result, we can expect that the bifurcation between the winners and losers continues to accelerate. The winners will continue to innovate how they engage and build meaningful relationships with consumers.


    The new normal is there is no normal and 2021 will continue to be a year that requires agility to adapt.”     — Dan Goldman

First, I think we’ll see some very interesting engagement models and digital capabilities come to life that build on the best of what we’ve seen from the last year. If the past year has been establishing a foundation for digital engagement, omnichannel capabilities, and social, I’d expect over the next year, these executions get more refined, more profound, and retailers will add a deeper layer of personalization to them. I also think that social commerce models will continue to scale.

Second, especially in the back half when the pandemic is hopefully more behind us, I think that winning retailers will find ways to bring the physical store and brand experiences to life in ways that are super engaging and help reinvigorate consumers’ interest in in-store shopping. They’ll need to entice consumers back and make them really appreciate why physical brand engagement is so powerful.

Third, across both channels, I think there’s a huge pent up consumer demand for community and belonging. Retailers that can tap into this and bring people together, whether virtually or in-person, will stand out in consumers’ hearts and minds.

Regardless of which of these predictions become true, let’s hope that 2021 is a healthier and happier year for everyone. ♦