Alexis DeSalva Kahler
Alexis is a Senior Research Analyst at Mintel. Alexis focuses on US Retail and eCommerce reports.

2020 has come and gone. Brands and retailers have demonstrated their ability to be nimble, deal with new challenges and meet consumers’ evolving needs. They’ve held their breath waiting for things to change in 2021, and in many cases, not much is different one month in. Yet, there’s hope on the horizon thanks to the rollout of a vaccine and that has many asking, “what will be different in 2021?”

Below, we take a look ahead and predict what’s to come this year for retail.

Return of the Roaring 20s

Consumers continue to gravitate toward casual clothing, particularly athleisure, but that’s been partially accelerated because of lifestyle shifts caused by COVID-19. While comfy and functional clothes will continue to remain popular, 2021 will likely see the return of dressing up, at least to some degree. In fact, one-third of consumers are looking forward to having more occasions to dress up for, and that grows to nearly half among women aged 18-34, according to Mintel research on the casualization of fashion. Already, spring 2021 collections shown on the Paris runway this week featured many opulent and lavish styles, seemingly inspired by Bridgerton, the hit Netflix period TV show many homebound consumers are watching. In short, consumers still appreciate their sweats and activewear, but many are looking forward to playing “dress up” and will likely do so once the vaccine is more widely distributed and signals a return to some normalcy.

Experiences but make it virtual

The pandemic has driven more consumers to shop online, partially out of convenience and partially because some remain hesitant about shopping in stores, while others simply enjoy it and even browse online as a hobby, according to e-commerce apparel retailing. This signals that, even beyond the pandemic, more consumers will remain engaged online, using it as a place of search and discovery, but also interaction. Shopping is, for many consumers, a social experience and just because more shopping is occurring online, the need for interaction won’t disappear. Brands and retailers will need to explore ways to offer digital experiences. The physical separation caused by the pandemic and the increased need for escapism are driving consumers toward digital experiences.

In 2021, expect to see more retailers using technology to offer consumers ways to virtually interact. Gaming experiences will have a bigger presence, especially in aesthetically driven purchases, such as apparel and beauty. And some retailers may even take the concept of virtual watch parties, which have grown popular on streaming services, and translate them into virtual shopping parties, so consumers can interact while shopping, even if they’re not in person. Doing so will keep consumers excited and keep them shopping, even once the virus is not a threat.

More partnerships

If the recently announced partnerships between Target and Ulta and Sephora and Kohl’s have taught us anything, it’s that there’s strength in numbers, especially after a year as unprecedented as 2020. Specialty retailers, particularly in apparel and beauty, are struggling to maintain shoppers as consumers look to minimize their trips to the store and seek efficiency, turning to mass retailers. While partnerships are nothing new, there’s something noteworthy about seeing the aforementioned retailers join forces. Despite being appreciated for their value and convenience, consumers are less likely to perceive mass retailers for their quality, trendiness or environment; partnerships with outside retailers or brands can help improve that image. To capitalize on the changing foot traffic, more specialty retailers will turn to mass retailers (also deemed “essential” during lockdown) to stay engaged with customers and continue to capture new ones.

What we think

The last year was unpredictable and unparalleled, but retailers aren’t out of the woods yet. The changes caused by the pandemic will continue to unfold through 2021 and will likely have a longer-term effect on how and where consumers shop.