Last updated: Must-know retail trends: From Boomers to Gen Z, the strategies that dominate

Must-know retail trends: From Boomers to Gen Z, the strategies that dominate


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Health mandates and rapid shifts in consumer preferences forced retailers to make massive changes in 2020. As online shopping skyrocketed and foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores plummeted, retailers had to pivot like never before. So, what are the top 2021 retail trends brands should watch for as they regain their footing and look to grow?

Can they expect consumers to stick with e-commerce or will they flock back to stores? How will consumer behavior vary among different generations?

Must-know retail trends: E-commerce reigns supreme

SAP teamed with The Economist Intelligence Unit to gain insights as to how the pandemic altered shopping behavior and to gauge what’s ahead for retailers. The study, conducted in September 2020, surveyed 4,000 consumers across US, Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain.

Here are three key trends from the study that all retailers need to know in order to build resilient growth strategies in the short, medium, and long-term future:

  1. Online shopping shined in 2020 and will continue to grow
  2. The rise in non-essential online purchases
  3. Omnichannel is the new retail reality

Always-on retail: No matter the age, online shopping is the top choice across generations 

While overall monthly consumer spending dropped by 9% during the pandemic, online shopping has been a bright spot when comparing the first quarter of 2020 to the second, where online channels saw a 15% boost.

What factors drove consumers to shop online? Concerns around safety for in-store shopping obviously contributed to this shift, but convenience was also an important factor.

The ability to shop for anything at any time is a draw that shoppers in all demographics find particularly compelling, with 49% of respondents listing it as the number one reason they like to shop online.

As far as generational variations, millennial and Gen Z shoppers dominate online spending typically. However, baby boomers demonstrated the largest shift to e-commerce since the start of the pandemic, with an increase from 25% to 37%.

The staying power of digital: Rise in online, non-essential purchases demonstrates e-commerce strength 

While groceries and cleaning supplies largely drove shoppers to online channels at first, the growing number of consumers buying non-essential items online hints at the staying power of these new behaviors.

Clothing and consumer electronics are two product categories that shoppers usually like to try out before buying. But, with stores enforcing strict capacity limits, many shoppers have turned to online channels to buy non-essential items.

The level of convenience that online shoppers are becoming accustomed to is likely to help brands retain some of these converts post-pandemic.

Sixty-one percent of respondents expect to continue with their new (and largely online) shopping behavior because of its convenience and time-saving benefits. However, there is some drop off, based on age.  Baby boomers are most likely to return to stores, as this generation is estimated to see a 9% decrease in online shopping post-pandemic.

For younger generations, the decline isn’t expected to be quite as steep, with 6% of Gen X and 4% of millennials and Gen Z lowering their online spend. While online shopping is especially convenient, it can’t rival the instant gratification or unique opportunity to try out certain products that can only be experienced at stores.

There are two specific takeaways for retailers:

  1. First, they might retarget baby boomers on their digital shopping channels to convince them to continue checking out online.
  2. Second, they might consider a focus on click-and-collect programs in order to give shoppers the benefits of online shopping without the wait time.

Retailers need an omnichannel strategy, STAT

This pandemic has ushered in a new era of omnichannel reality. Consumers might discover a product while browsing in a store, but check out from their mobile device when they get home. Or, curbside pickup has become quite popular, as shoppers buy online and pick up outside the store for convenience and to maintain social distancing.

In order to stitch these online and offline behaviors together, retailers need to fully integrate their front-end engagement platforms and applications with their back-end inventory and payment systems.

Casey’s, a Midwestern chain of convenience stores and fuel stations, is a great example of a brand that has been able to lean into digital transformation in light of rapidly changing consumer behavior.

With far fewer drivers traveling to work and school, their fuel sales and any add-on food purchases dipped. Casey’s quickly had to strategize how to get their popular pizza and other products to consumers at home. By launching a mobile app and online experience that combined ordering, delivery, a new loyalty program, and personalized cross-selling, Casey’s was able to increase its average order size. Most significantly, the new mobile app soon garnered three million downloads and now accounts for 65% of their digital revenue.

Casey’s embodies an important lesson: Retailers must be agile enough to respond to emerging trends that are relevant to their target customers. Sales and customer loyalty depend on it.

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Retail trends for 2021: Onward and upward

2020 was the beginning of a new normal in retail. The products and shopping channels consumers obsess over might change, but what holds true is the importance of business agility and flexibility for catering to ongoing shifts in customer preferences.

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