Is the Summer of 2021 going to be a hot one for retail?

Things Should Heat Up in the Retail Sector

All this good news about COVID couldn’t come at a better time for retail. That’s because traditionally, many of the big retail “holidays” happen in late-spring and summer. Mother’s Day. Graduation. Not to mention Back to School and Back to College, which have quickly grown into massive retail events. But when school hours are severely limited and the majority of classes online, all that back-to-school spending didn’t materialize last season. That should change this year as more of the economy reopens. That optimism is reflected by industry watchers.

The National Retail Federation recently issued its annual forecast, predicting that retail sales should grow between 6.5 and 8.2 percent, to total more than $4.33 trillion in 2021. In addition, they forecast the U.S. economy to gain between 220,000 and 300,000 jobs per month in 2021, with a real GDP growth between 4.5 and 5%. As National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz puts it, “The economy is expected to see its fastest growth in over two decades.”

Envisioning Post-COVID Retail Experiences

One thing we can say for certain is COVID is not going anywhere. The world may open up, but the virus will always be with us. And that will certainly affect the retail shopping experience. Readers of this blog know this is a subject we’ve discussed in great detail, from curbside merchandising opportunities to shopping during COVID and more.

Right now, the retail industry is looking at ways to prepare for a post-pandemic retail experience—that still places a high premium on customer safety. Forbes took an interesting look at some ideas including new store layouts that allow for one-way traffic flows. And since remote education is going to be around for the long haul as well (though mercifully not at the levels we’re seeing right now) they note that back-to-school items are now selling year-round.

SPAR’s own Chief Revenue Officer Gerry Marrone has unique first-hand insight into how the holiday schedule for retail has changed, “When I was Director of Strategy at Bed Bath & Beyond part of my responsibility was the Back to College business. In those days the store was reset after July 4th, with the web presence starting about a month earlier and went through Labor Day. Those days are gone.”

Rethinking Back-to-School

The traditional notebooks, paper and pens are also giving way to a whole new breed of back-to-school items. Going forward, would it surprise anyone to find arrays of masks, thermometers, pulse oximeters, face shields, and hand sanitizer sold next to the more traditional back-to-college items like notebooks, loose leaf binders and the ubiquitous plastic milk crate storage bins?

Another interesting development is the emergence of back-to-school items designed for outdoor learning. These include blankets, towels and even rain boots…anything that enables students to comfortably stay outside longer.

This dovetails with what we’ve been seeing…an increase in outdoor retail spaces. Despite the vaccine, this summer many people may be more inclined to shop outdoors instead of going inside. For big box stores with big parking lots, that means erecting tents and inviting customers “outside” to shop. Retailtainment in the parking lot was in vogue in the early 2000’s and as the weather warms up, it seems likely that many retailers could bring back this tactic.

See You This Summer (or hopefully earlier)

Taken altogether, the widespread vaccinations that are going on, combined with more time spent outdoors after an especially brutal winter bodes quite well for retail. We expect to see stores (and the retail jobs that come with them) filling up again, safely and responsibly. Whether it’s in a tent in a parking lot, or a socially distanced store, it will be so nice to see the retail environment humming again as customers come out to spend all the cash they haven’t been spending in the last year.

Have you seen any new and exciting developments in retail lately? Are the stores by you getting crowded again? Let us know. We want to hear from you!