Innovation That Matters

2021 Forecast: 5 Retail Trends to Look For


Innovative solutions that emerged in response to COVID reveal paths forward for retailers looking to navigate the coming months.

There’s no denying that 2020 was a tumultuous year for the entire retail sector. But the encouraging flipside is evident in the innovative solutions that emerged in response to COVID, and they reveal paths forward for retailers looking to navigate the coming months in a more purposeful and agile way. 

When we tapped into the pulse of our global innovation community of business leaders and entrepreneurs at the height of the pandemic, our Great Reset survey found that 78 per cent believed the crisis could be an extraordinary opportunity – if approached correctly. Heading into 2021, we still believe this is true, based on the innovations we’ve been tracking in recent months. 

For retailers, this means re-committing to sustainable and purpose-driven agendas, as the idea that more consumers want to buy from brands that align with their values will only crystalise further in 2021 — bolstered by Gen Z’s growing purchasing power and the fallout from the pandemic.

Among the many other opportunities we’ll detail below, there’s an opening to capitalise on the e-commerce boom by personalising the remote shopping experience and tapping into new platforms that are meeting consumers’ changing behaviours.

1. Sustainability and purpose will be more important than ever

The idea that more consumers want to buy from brands that align with their values should only crystalise further in 2021, bolstered by Gen Z’s growing purchasing power and the fallout from the pandemic.

The desire for purpose-driven products and brands from younger consumers was already well-documented prior to the pandemic and seems to have been only strengthened by it. A recent ShopKick survey found 55 per cent of Gen Z consumers stating they will seek out retailers who match their core values even more than before. 

In our Great Reset survey, 63 per cent said their organisation should use the COVID crisis as an opportunity to tackle the climate emergency. This sentiment was backed up by a flurry of innovative retail products with sustainability at their core.

Truly sustainable clothing and apparel have recently been produced and marketed at scale, including compostable items like Vollback’s hoodie made from eucalyptus trees and trainers by Salomon that are 100 per cent recyclable. 

Advancing technology will make such items even more commonplace in 2021. Recently, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research developed a new method to convert old cotton clothing into fibre suitable for mass manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Nigerian-born designer Lola Faturoti is already using the cloud-based Resonance platform to create only the pieces that will be purchased in order to eliminate textile waste. 

2. Social commerce and shoppable streaming

DroppTV provides a huge opportunity for both artists and brands to reach their respective communities and build engagement | Photo source

We’ve also seen an uptick in social commerce and shoppable streaming — e-commerce making its way into consumers’ social media and video feeds. 

Illustrating this is TikTok’s recent partnership with Shopify, whose over 1 million merchants will be able to create shareable content featuring products within TikTok in the form of In-Feed video advertisements. In the past year, we’ve also seen Snapchat expand its Native Stores feature and the launch of Facebook Shops. 

On top of this, innovators continue to create platforms opening up new opportunities for retailers to tap into these audiences. For instance, DroppTV — the first-ever shoppable streaming video platform — launched in September and allows artists and brands to create virtual pop-up shops within music videos.

We’ve already seen some retailers push forward with social commerce initiatives and expect many more examples in 2021. Burberry partnered with Tencent to create an experience blending in-store shopping with online interaction at its recently-opened Shenzhen store — utilising WeChat to feature exclusive content and access that is unlocked via social media interaction.

Others are tapping into popular social video games like Animal Crossing with the help of virtual influencers. The Brazilian womenswear brand Amaro created the Amaro Cross Collection — outfits devised by players in the game. Amaro sourced the designs by creating an Animal Crossing character for its existing virtual influencer, Mara, who players could show their designs to for consideration.  

3. A more personal e-commerce experience 

It’s clear that the pandemic has boosted online sales overall, but to truly capitalise on this, retailers must strive to develop an in-store sensibility to e-commerce, offering personalised attention to customers in new ways whilst providing seamless integration of digital and in-store experiences.

Agile retailers have led by example during the pandemic, including Selfridges’ pivot toward virtual personal shopping appointments, and Burberry’s partnership with Tencent that we previously noted. 

But there are also opportunities with emerging technologies like augmented reality and voice recognition, both of which are seeing increased usage since COVID hit. 

We’ve spotted several AR innovations aimed at home-bound consumers, such as Meitu’s virtual makeup try-on tool, which the company offered to cosmetics companies for free use, and Fision’s body-scanning app that recreates the dressing room experience at home. Voice-ordering also took a step forward via Carrefour’s partnership with Google, allowing for the first time the ability to purchase groceries using Googe Home devices.  

4. Bringing digital convenience in-store

With Holo Industries’ contactless touch system, users push buttons as they would on a usual touchscreen, yet are interacting with a beam of light | Photo source Business Wire

Despite the e-commerce surge, bricks-and-mortar is far from becoming obsolete. The appeal of in-store shopping persists, and just as retailers are aiming to make the e-commerce experience more like the in-store one, technology and tactics that started online can be applied to the physical realm to provide added convenience and a safer shopping environment. 

A notable example was the opening of Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar grocery store in September. The Amazon Fresh was developed specifically to offer a seamless grocery shopping experience, no matter where the customer’s shopping journey begins. 

Beyond convenience, safety is now front-of-mind for many consumers, and we’ve seen several innovations focused on touchless experiences. 

Holo Industries’ contactless touch systems utilise holograms for ordering food, ensuring that no germs are transferred between customers. The immersive retail startup Showfields also developed what it calls its “Magic Wand” app, designed to serve as a virtual retail adviser for customers. The app provides additional information on display objects, which customers can choose by tapping or scanning them using their phones. To make a purchase, objects can simply be added to a digital cart, and customers can then check out without having to interact with a store associate. 

5. Agility is no longer an option

Another thing that the pandemic has hammered home for all businesses is the need to develop flexible long-term strategies for dealing with change. Although the pandemic will eventually recede, global warming means that an extended period of crisis management is only just beginning, as well as the shift in consumer habits fueled by COVID.

Some brands have had success converting their shops to dark stores — large warehouses that can be used to facilitate “click-and-collect” services; and in hospitality, “ghost kitchens”, which prepare food entirely for delivery. These dark stores also offer an economy of scale, allowing many businesses to share the same warehouse space and delivery service.

Some are turning to digital services to offer new ways of delivering services. Springwise has spotted virtual experiences like’s online clubbing offering that opened up new sales streams for beverage brands. 

Others have entirely reconfigured how they operate. Springwise saw the Chinese jewellery retailer Ideal convert its business almost overnight from a bricks-and-mortar-based shop to an e-commerce model that uses live streaming. This involved quickly retraining in-store sales staff to become live broadcasters.