We continue our exploration of the current and future shape of retail around the globe as brands commence the lengthy road of recovery for some and normality for most.

What will the new retail landscape look like? Now that the wide scale lockdowns are mostly over, supply chain issues and staffing woes still abound, hampering a return to retail as we knew it. How will brands adapt to these new consumer behaviors and are they here to stay? Read on.

Physical Stores Still Have Their Place

Despite the normalization of online shopping and home delivery during lockdown, many consumers were counting the days before they could walk through the doors of physical stores again. Tomorrow’s retailers still need to win hearts and minds in the real world and shouldn’t give up all their store space just yet. 

One of the reasons for this might be just how much people love browsing. Shopping online tends to be goal-based and transactional, but people browse in-person not only because they need something, but because they enjoy it. A study by Michael Guiry,1 Associate Professor of Marketing at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, suggests that for some of us shopping forms part of our self-concept, cementing, and playing back, our ideas of who we are. Although customers appreciate the best efforts of online retailers in creating browsing journeys, they are still only a facsimile, lacking in the excitement and sensory details that are so much part of the experience in real life. 

For all the news headlines on the rise and rise of online shopping, most retail is still taking place in physical spaces. In the US, by February 2021 it had settled at around 15% of sales.2 And although many retailers have closed branches and reduced shoppable space they’re unlikely to get rid of it completely. The digital and physical stores of the future will have a symbiotic relationship, with digital driving footfall to physical stores that support online sales.

A Future Of Experiential Retail

Real-life shopping at its best isn’t just about making a transaction, it’s about entertainment, about entering a different space and socializing with friends, family, and community. Physical retailers can offer many of the things we’ve all missed during the pandemic: the excitement of new discoveries, human connections, personal service, sensory moments. These experiential retail experiences, powered by new technologies, will be center stage in the next couple of years as retailers try to tempt consumers back, and with footfall likely to be reduced, they will be looking to squeeze every drop of value out of the customers who come through the door. 

For example, Nike, always ahead in experiential experiences, have launched Nike Rise in Guangzhou, China and in Seoul, South Korea: technology-driven retail hubs that work with the Nike App to create experiences powered by customer data.3 Dick’s Sporting Goods in the US opened its biggest-ever store in the spring of 2021 in a bid to drive deeper engagement with customers. The ‘House of Sport’ site in Victor, New York includes an indoor rock-climbing wall, golf driving bays and a putting green, as well as a health and wellness shop and a track and turf field.4 

In London, with the pandemic still on everyone’s minds, Lush’s redesign of its Oxford Street store includes tech innovations imported from its Shinjuku store, with QR codes and video displays creating an interactive experience that doesn’t have to be hands-on – no mean feat for a cosmetics retailer.5 Meanwhile, shopping mall Westfield London is launching Situ Live, a ‘discovery playhouse’ where customers can try out new products.6

In the post-Covid world, retailers will be looking to use technology to examine footfall, drive sales and create new customer experiences. LiDAR technology uses infrared light to sense movement, meaning that retailers can measure footfall and dwell time as well as analyzing the success of visual merchandising and customer engagement, tracking individuals with no loss of privacy as only an outline is ever recorded. Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology can help anyone with a smartphone navigate around a mall, but it can also be utilized by furniture retailers. IKEA’s newly revamped IKEA Studio app not only enables the user to see a chosen piece of furniture in situ in their home, it allows them to redesign the entire room.7 In-store QR codes can provide product information, special deals or an easy way to buy online in a bid to lessen the practice of ‘showrooming’, i.e. looking at goods in physical stores before buying them at a lower price from an online competitor. 

Local Shopping For Local People

Repeated lockdowns and the shift towards home working has meant a new focus on shopping locally. In the UK the number of independent stores grew in the first half of 2021 for the first time since 2017,8 able to take advantage of government support measures, such as business rates relief and furlough schemes, as well as deals on rent offered by landlords keen to fill spaces vacated by failing chain stores.

There’s an opportunity for local main streets to evolve to serve new needs: a return to the times before out-of-town malls and retail parks. Even before the pandemic, city planners across the world including Paris, Barcelona, Portland, and Melbourne were responding to climate change by encouraging ‘15-minute cities’, creating blocks where people can access all their everyday services within a short walk or bike ride, reducing traffic and pollution and creating more space for trees.9

Larger chain retailers are already responding to new patterns of hybrid working. In the UK Sainsbury’s has recently announced a new partnership with Itsu, Leon and Wasabi, trialling ‘lunch stands’ across 300 stores, aimed at consumers working from home or in the office. Sainsbury’s Food for Later category planner Frances Hughes said: “As a hybrid style of working becomes more normal, we’ve been working hard to analyze customer needs when it comes to their lunchtime meals…the introduction of the in-aisle lunch stand makes it easily accessible for anyone to pick up an affordable and balanced meal, no matter what your daily ritual is.”10

Downtown Areas Need New Purpose

Downtown areas that were once busy with office workers are significantly quieter since the pandemic. In the future they will need to find new reasons to attract visitors and fill space, with shops, grocery stores and restaurants alongside medical centers, community, leisure, housing and workspace. 

There needs to be a greater emphasis on flexibility and sharing, finding purpose for underused spaces, and providing the amenities that communities need, supporting small businesses, creatives and social enterprises who might otherwise find it impossible to have a physical presence. And it’s the perfect time for experimentation, finding out what works as we move into our post-pandemic future. In some ways the lasting effects of Covid could give a new lease of life to physical retail locations that had been declining over the years. 

But it’s not just down to stores and other businesses to create the successful downtown shopping areas and main streets of the future. Governments and landlords will need to work with them to create areas suited to local communities and their changing needs. They also need to relook at rates and rent models that have decimated businesses unable to operate during lockdown. The alternative is yet more businesses going under, boarded-up shops and the hollowing out of retail areas. Some landlords have already offered their retail tenants turnover-based rents in a bid to save main streets. In the UK, the government are under pressure from within their own party to reform business rates, and the opposition Labour party has already announced their wish to scrap them in favor of a new system that increases the digital services tax on tech giants.11


  1. Defining And Measuring Recreational Shopper Identity, SpringerLink, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1177/0092070305282042
  1. State Of Retail, National Retail Federation, https://nrf.com/topics/economy/state-retail
  1. Nike’s Latest Retail Concept Powered By The Pulse Of Sport, Nike News, https://news.nike.com/news/nike-rise-retail-concept
  1. Dick’s Sporting Goods Just Opened A Massive Store With A Virtual Driving Range And Outdoor Track. Here’s A Look Inside, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/09/dicks-sporting-goods-new-store-has-a-driving-range-and-outdoor-track.html
  1. In Pictures: Lush Oxford Street Reopens With Innovative Global Concepts, The Industry.Fashion, https://www.theindustry.fashion/in-pictures-lush-oxford-street-re-opens-with-innovative-global-concepts/
  1. “It’s Not A Store, It’s A Venue”: How Situ Live is Transforming The Way We Shop, Charged Retail Tech News, https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2021/05/19/its-not-a-store-its-a-venue-how-situ-live-is-transforming-the-way-we-shop/
  1. IKEA’s Fancy New App Lets You Design Entire Rooms, Wired, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/ikea-studio-ar-app
  1. Independent Retail Sector Returns To Growth, Drapers, https://www.drapersonline.com/news/independent-stores-benefit-from-chain-closures
  1. The 15-Minute City – No Cars Required – Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-11-12/paris-s-15-minute-city-could-be-coming-to-an-urban-area-near-you
  1. Sainsbury’s Launches News In-Aisle Concept With Over 20 Lunch Meals, The Grocer, https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/sainsburys/sainsburys-launches-new-in-aisle-concept-with-over-20-lunch-meals/660142.article
  1. As Macy’s and Sephora Flee the Mall, Will Other Retailers Follow?, The Motley Fool, https://www.fool.com/investing/2020/02/13/as-macys-and-sephora-flee-the-mall-will-other-reta.aspx