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What will normal be for mass retail?

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The arrival of a new year can be a time for hope, and that is especially true as the world puts 2020 in its rear view mirror.

The approval of two COVID-19 vaccines, with more potentially on the way, will likely mark the beginning of the end for a pandemic that shook the U.S. economy, killed more than 300,000 Americans and cost millions of people their jobs. The vaccines, already being administered by retail pharmacists, also hold the promise of a return to normalcy the those for whom the pandemic has been more inconvenience than personal tragedy, the people who want to stop wearing masks and start socializing, traveling, eating at restaurants, and maybe even going back to the office or to trade shows again.

But what will the return to normalcy look like for mass retail shoppers? Will they go entirely back to their pre-COVID ways, or will new habits picked up during the pandemic have staying power?

The new normal is unlikely to look like the old normal. Lots of people were inspired by the pandemic to try online shopping, including options like store pickup, for the first time, and many will decide they like having that as an option. Brick-and-mortar stores are still not expected to go away, but more and more consumers are expected to become omnichannel shoppers. That trend will only accelerate as online shopping technologies and options improve. Walmart’s recent experiment with hosting a “shoppable variety show” on the social media platform TikTok shows one way that things will likely go.

What else?

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term impacts on the retail sector and will disrupt consumer shopping behaviors and their priorities in a number of ways in the years ahead, according to a new report from Edge by Ascential’s research and data insight arm, Retail Insight.

The Future of Retail Disruption report highlights a number of changes that are likely coming for mass retailers, beyond the embrace of the convenience offered by online retailers. For example, the pandemic has revealed some of the weaknesses of the U.S. health care system, and that could spell an opportunity for retailers.

Taking advantage of that opportunity could mean becoming a full-on health care provider, as Walmart is doing with its growing number of Walmart Health centers. Or it could mean just expanding the offerings of “good for you” products and services.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having a seismic shift on the retail industry, and its effects are likely to be permanent,” says Xian Wang, global content director at Edge by Ascential. “We have seen a dramatic shift towards digital commerce, with 40% of global retail sales projected to come from e-commerce by 2024. To adapt in this new environment, retailers need to proactively define their own market position and focus on the priorities of consumers, such as what they are placing more value in and their biggest concerns, which can vary by market.”

The new normal will undoubtably be better than the retail world of 2020, which was to a large extent defined by COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.


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