CJRS Hamburger Close Client Login CJRS Login

Retail Industry Landscape 2021

Retail Industry Landscape 2021

If ever you’re feeling nostalgic, go and read some retail blogs from the end of 2019. There’s talk of Black Friday tips and the future of retail spaces, and the C word was most definitely “consumer”. And of course, none of the end-of-year forecasts mentions a two-year (or perhaps more) global pandemic that would create an existential threat for many brick and mortar retailers, and give online retailers an unexpected boost.

A look back at those times can be quite instructive, however. Viewed without the benefit of 20-20 hindsight goggles, there were some notable preoccupations that never really went away, despite the pause button being pressed.


The most pressing was the ever-growing encroachment of online retail into the physical space’s share of the market. Let’s not forget that 2019 saw some high-profile collapses and emergency rescue packages for big name retailers. 

Debenhams, Jessops, Bonmarché, Mothercare, Office Outlet, Oddbins, Patisserie Valerie and Clintons were just some of the household name stores that faced turbulent times – and we can throw Thomas Cook in there too.

However, the biggest shock of all came in 2020, when Arcadia (the umbrella company covering Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Burton and Evans), went into administration along with many others, including Intu, manager of Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Lakeside in Essex. 

While there were many tales of mismanagement over the names above, one theme persists – the effect of online retail, and how well (or badly) the brands had leveraged their name to get a strong position online.

As we head into 2022, hopeful in a more beneficial climate, these questions still remain. It’s worth noting, however, that even for brands that were largely considered to be doing online/offline properly, it hasn’t been plain sailing. John Lewis springs to mind, and if that can struggle, anything can. 

On the other hand, amid the notable collapses, there has been an equally unexpected resilience seen in the retail space. 

While “essentials” shops (food and medicines) were practically never locked down, the “non-essential” sector (everything else) has had a rocky pandemic, with extensive lockdowns and opening under very strict measures. That the vast majority of the high street has emerged down but not out is itself a huge story, and is extremely encouraging for the retail sector.

We can draw two pretty strong conclusions from the surviving retailers’ success against all the odds:

  • First, physical retail isn’t just alive and kicking, it remains a vital part of our towns and cities. People still love to go out and try things on, lookat goods, ask questions of human assistants and know they can return things to the store with the minimum of hassle. And they also like to punctuate their shopping trips with visits to restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas and shows. If retailers continue to make stores an attractive place to be, many of the worries of online encroachment could well turn out to have been overly pessimistic. Online and offline can exist in harmony, and even feed off each other.
  • Second, we can now state with certainty that the retail industry is among the most flexible, innovative and resilient there is. The way it adapted to the new reality of Covid with literally weeks of planning, has to be admired. From the checkout to the boardroom, retail employees pulled together and recognised they had a job to do – and did it with aplomb. If that doesn’t fill the physical retail sector with an abundance of optimism, it’s difficult to think what will.


Another recurring theme from 2019 that remains in place is the growth of the experiential shopping phenomenon. It can be argued that shopping is itself an experience in 2021, and that customers’ willingness to enter the stores, even wearing a mask and keeping 2 meters apart, shows that it’s an attractive pastime.

But the novelty will surely wear off, and the stores will once again need to become competitive with their rivals, both down the street and on the web. There is little doubt that the trajectory experiential retail was taking will be resumed after the spot of turbulence, and we’re likely to see more interactive displays and immersive shopping experiences lure customers away from their phones and computers.

Once again, though, we’re optimistic that the creativity of marketers, merchandisers and retail staff will provide all the inspiration the industry needs as the buying public gets back up to speed.

Omnichannel retail

We’re not claiming that omnichannel marketing was exactly cutting-edge tech in 2019, but we can say with confidence that 2020/21 was its proving ground. Designed to provide a seamless transition between physical and virtual shopping experiences, it was never supposed to help stores weather the most extremes of retail storms, with one entire channel becoming disengaged.

But those stores that had already developed robust omnichannel models were automatically giving themselves a fighting chance versus those that had separate channels joined by name only – or indeed, weak online presence. A poor user experience has been partly blamed for Topshop’s demise, in a market that is dominated by fast fashion online (unironically, Topshop and Miss Selfidge were bought by Asos in 2021).

Looking forward

Hopefully, there won’t be another Covid-sized shock to the retail system for a very long time. And it’s probably fair to say that should something similar happen again in the near future, we’ll be better able to cope with it by drawing on our recent experiences. But the retail industry landscape is really just picking up where it left off in spring 2020, albeit with perhaps a little more wisdom and humility.

It’s therefore vital to steal a march on the competition by getting your audits and surveys, displays and signage up to date and firing on all cylinders. If your business has survived 2020 and 2021 intact, you were definitely doing something right anyway, so it’s a great time to forge ahead with a heap of confidence that you, and the wider industry, might well have been lacking. Because things are about to get a lot busier.