Top Challenges Facing Retailers 2021 Image

What Are The Top Challenges Facing Retailers in 2021?

In Retail, The Digital Marketing Blog by SeanLeave a Comment

When we were thinking about the challenges facing marketers and running through our predictions for 2020, a global pandemic wasn’t at the top of most people’s lists. 

But, here we are. 

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on a lot of industries across the world, and retail is right up at the top of that list. 

Even before the pandemic, many retailers and high street stores were struggling to survive with rising overheads, high rental costs, and the ease of online shopping all contributing to the so-called “death of the high-street”

*We’ve covered the above and a whole lot more in previous posts. (You can find out about the challenges facing fashion brands and retailers in 2019 here, as well as the top challenges facing retailers in 2018 here). 

But even tougher challenges came earlier this year along with Coronavirus, from lockdowns meaning the closure of high street stores for long periods, to fewer visitors in store once restrictions were lifted due to safety measures and even fewer people on the high street in general. 

The harsh reality is that retailers have had it tough and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

But what can they do about it? 

In this post, I’ll be exploring some of the top challenges facing retailers, both big and small, in 2021 and beyond as well as providing tips and advice on how they can overcome them. 

Lack of Footfall Forcing Businesses To Focus On Online Sales 

In early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe and forced countries into lockdown, meaning that retailers had to close their shops for months with little warning. 

The result was that a lot of businesses that had relied on their physical stores had to either move their business online or start focusing more of their efforts on their existing website. 

As such, it became probably the top challenge facing retailers this year and will continue to do so into 2021. 

As Andrew Witts, Owner/SEO Specialist of Studio 36 Digital explains:

“With no prior warning and little preparation time, many small businesses who rely on footfall to their ‘brick and mortar’ store have had to adapt to keep sales coming in. 

I think a lot of businesses have come to terms with the fact that life and trading won’t be returning to normal anytime soon and a big part of our business this year has been establishing an e-commerce outlet for businesses to be able to trade and sell products online.

Going into 2021, I think more and more businesses will have to come to terms that trading online is a long-term solution. The main challenge we are seeing is that a proportion of these smaller businesses have no existing website. So, creating an online presence to harness sales from nothing is usually something that would take time, often years. Promoting through social media with a strong and persistent plan is one method, along with blogging collaboration with these businesses to raise awareness of their products and services.”

At the time of writing, we’ve just entered another lockdown here in the UK and as such, retailers have had to close their stores again for a minimum of a month and in some cases, likely longer. 

There may have been some retailers who thought that they could survive the first wave of coronavirus and that life would slowly return back to some form of normality and in many ways, it seemed that it might be the case during the summer. 

Unfortunately, with the UK now in the midst of a second wave, moving or focusing online and investing in digital marketing is a must if retailers are to survive. 

As Lewis Keegan, Founder of Skill Scouter explains:

“One of the top challenges facing retailers in 2021 is the fact that they have to take the step and transition to conduct their business online or else, they will be left behind by those who have stores both onsite and online. We are in the golden age of technology and those who wouldn’t be able to go with the flow of the current will slowly sink to the bottom of the pyramid.” 

With a lack of footfall and shopping habits changing, it’s clear that for retailers to survive into 2021 and beyond, they’ll need to start concentrating more, if not all, of their efforts online. 

But where do you start going about moving your business online, and where should retailers be spending their time when it comes to their website? 

The reality is, there’s a lot to do! 

Nevertheless, here are our top tips for where you should focus your time when it comes to moving online and focussing on your digital marketing efforts:  

  • Ensure that your website is fast and that load times are minimised – no one likes a slow site, not least Google! You can find Page Speed Optimisation tips on our Podcast with ex-Googler Fili Wiese here
  • Create effective product pages: 
    • Ensure that product descriptions are well written with SEO best practice and include all details that the customer would need 
    • Use good quality images or videos – People want to have a clear image of what they’re purchasing. With a lack of people browsing in-store, you’ll want to help your customers to do this online with product demos etc. 
    • Include similar products “We think you might also like”, “we think you’ll love” or “frequently bought together” sections with your other products to encourage further purchases or help customers choose another product instead of leaving your site 
    • Include social proof – e.g. customer reviews for your products
    • Ensure that your call to action (CTA) is clear and obvious 
  • Ensure that your eCommerce is set up correctly 
  • Undertake CRO (Conversion Rate Optimisation) tests to ensure a smooth user journey across the site from browsing to purchase. Pinpoint any potential barriers for your customers and update your site accordingly 
  • Ensure that your site is well optimised from an SEO perspective in terms of what you sell to ensure that you’re visible in search results

We’ve recently covered eCommerce in more detail on our Internet Marketing Podcast episode with Luke Carthy. As well as tips and recommendations on eCommerce features that can help you with your site you’ll also learn: 

  • The most engaging eCommerce features and functions in 2020
  • Recommendations for companies in market-leading positions continually striving to maintain their competitive edge
  • eCommerce features that have moved from ‘nice-to-haves’ to expected by customers
  • New eCommerce software we think you’ll love

You can listen to the podcast below:

As well as the above, there is a whole load of activities that retailers could start doing to help them start or grow their online sales, from Paid Advertising on Google Ads or Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to email marketing and special offers. 

As a digital marketing agency with over 18 years of experience, if you’d like help with your digital marketing, from SEO or Content Marketing, to CRO, we can help you. Give us a call on 01273 733 433 or leave us a message via the contact form here.

Hiring Digital Talent or an Agency

Whilst it’s undoubtedly important to invest in digital marketing and ensure that your site is up to scratch, undertaking the work itself isn’t easy and not all business owners or retailers will have the experience or skills necessary to do so. 

As such, if they haven’t already, retailers may soon be facing the additional challenge of hiring and finding the right talent whilst they focus their efforts online.   

We spoke to Debjeet Gupta, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Columbia Pacific Capital Partners Inc. who explained: 

“As more physical retail stores transition to online mode, there will be a real battle for digital talent. 

Big retail brands such as Macy’s, Walmart, Nordstrom, etc, can easily attract excellent talent but the small and medium enterprises will find it very challenging to attract talent to help these brands with improving customer experience based on data analytics or anything else. 

Retail chains will be competing for customer’s attention, and the only way to get attention is to improve customer’s digital shopping experience through personalisation”.

Going into 2021, for many retailers, hiring a digital or marketing team will be a priority although unfortunately, the need for hiring doesn’t necessarily stop there. 

With an increase in spending and visitors to retail websites, there naturally comes a need for an increase in customer service online. 

Increased Need For Customer Support Online 

In the US, Digital Commerce 360 reported that U.S. online sales for September 2020 increased 43% year over year, reaching $60.4 billion and that Septembers’ growth was just above August’s online sales growth, which increased 42% year over year. 

With Amazon Prime Day taking place in October and Black Friday in November, online sales were set to increase even further. 

As such, with more visitors online, retailers will naturally be dealing with more and more customer requests, questions, and complaints as well as returns. As such, as well as the need for hiring a digital team to manage and market your website, there will also be an increase in the need for customer support online. 

Lance Rosenzweig, CEO of explains:

“While brick-and-mortar stores have taken a hit this year following the pandemic, e-commerce continues to surge, putting a strain on functions like customer support.  Customer support teams are accustomed to volume increases during seasonal times such as holidays; but in 2020, as e-commerce continues to surge, the customer support that quickly adjusts to business needs is more critical than ever. COVID-19 taught the retail industry, amongst others, that volume can increase both suddenly and dramatically, as consumer needs and priorities shift.

As e-commerce retailers look ahead to the holiday season and beyond in 2021, they should consider leveraging a customer support model that is fully home sourced.  Homesourcing enables outsourced work to be delivered by full-time employees working from home, a workplace model that can quickly scale and flex to meet business needs, mitigate risk, and ensure business continuity, with always-on customer”

There are several ways in which retailers could approach this, from contact forms to implementing live chat on the site, but the challenge remains the same. 

They’ll either need to spend more time responding to requests themselves or hire someone to do so. 

How Do You Hire The Right Digital Talent?

So, how can retailers make sure that they are hiring the right talent? 

We spoke to Natasha Woodford at our sister recruitment agency clockworkTalent for some top tips on hiring in the digital sector: 

 “It’s an amazing time to hire. 

There’s an abundance of talented Digital Marketers available which is in direct contrast to last year’s global skills shortage.

Before you begin hiring, build a clear checklist of what you need to achieve. Then assess your team. Where are the skills gaps? Do you need someone to drive the marketing strategy? Develop the lead generation funnel or build audience engagement on social media? Refer back to this checklist through the hiring process.

Make sure you’ve got your employee benefits and company culture in order. Digital Marketers are looking to work with great people and to secure the right role responsibilities; they’re equally drawn to job security and career progression. The biggest talent magnet at the moment seems to be flexible and remote working options. So, if you can offer these it could be hugely beneficial and expand your hiring pool!

Another tip when you’re interviewing is to include a task as part of your process. Make sure it won’t be seen as unpaid work for your company but how better to challenge someone’s skills than to allow them to show you their flair.

Finally, don’t rely on big job sites. 

The best digital marketers don’t sit on databases. Instead, you’ll find them through referrals. After all, it’s who you know, right? Dig deeper into the industry by asking for recommendations, joining Facebook groups, and specialist slack channels. You’ll find the best hidden talent in these places… or work with a well connected, specialist recruiter who does all of that work for you!”

For many businesses, it can be difficult to know who to work with or who to hire, but we can help. 

As mentioned above, we’re the sister agency of clockworkTalent, a specialist digital marketing recruitment business. As such, we’re uniquely positioned in being able to help you with your digital marketing efforts ourselves or assist you to hire and create your own in-house digital marketing team.

If you’d like to speak to us about how we can help you with either, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can call us on 01273 733433 or leave us a message via the contact form here

We’d love to help! 

Creating New Experiences In-Store 

So, with many businesses closing stores and moving online into 2021, does that mean that high street retail is dead? 

Not necessarily. 

As Retail expert Grace Gan, Senior Director of Consulting at The Sound explains:

“While many traditional retailers have closed their doors in 2020, the pandemic wasn’t the cause but the accelerant. Amazon and e-commerce were already pressuring brick and mortar, and COVID only squeezed them further.

But an increase in online shopping doesn’t mean the physical retail store will become obsolete in the future. It just means that consumer needs and expectations have changed, and with that, the role of the in-person store (vs. online) in their purchase journey.

From our research during the pandemic, online today (still) has its limitations, especially for more complex purchases i.e. limited ability to test and try products and to experience the brand, using senses beyond sight). And in-person retail continues to be seen as experiential, pleasurable, emotional–and not transactional.”

Quite frankly, I’d agree. As I see it, rather than being dead, one of the top challenges facing high street retailers who have managed to keep their stores open is managing to create a new positive experience for visitors in-store. 

Whilst a lack of footfall and allowing less customers into shops at a time is definitely a challenge, it can also present an opportunity.  

As John Moss, CEO of English Blinds explains:

“There are two overriding challenges for retailers coming up in 2021: The first of these is drawing shoppers out and incentivising brick-and-mortar store visits in the first place, and the second is being able to provide a pleasant and personalised shopper experience while also maintaining good Covid protocols and reassuring visitors about their health and safety.

Personalisation and enabling a positive shopper experience while also maintaining social distance and good Covid protocols is a huge challenge to combine, and these two endeavors can, at first glance, seem thoroughly mutually exclusive.

However, if you take something of a different angle to this and consider that removing some of the physical proximity of both staff and other shoppers can be an opportunity to create a more immersive and less distracting interaction with your store and goods, you begin to move along the right path.

Developing your store or showroom into sets or experiences that engage and involve the shopper in and of themselves and subtly funneling each person or group along a journey can help to provide the personalisation and interactivity buyers seek while removing concerns about safety and proximity to others.

This will generally take some trial and error and naturally isn’t going to come cheap; but retail is changing for good, not just for the short term as a result of Covid, and so acknowledging this and seeing it as an investment in the future of the business rather than a short-term adaptation that will make a real dent in the quarter’s figures is important.”

For anyone who’s visited a shopping centre or high street this year, it’s clear that the experience has changed drastically and the signs are that it will continue to do so into 2021 and beyond.  

There are now a range of measures and rules for consumers to navigate including: 

  • Physical queues outside stores
  • One-way systems in-stores due to social distancing
  • Using the hand sanitising stations dotted around stores
  • Changing rooms being closed 

As a result, consumers are going to need a good reason to go to the high street! 

But what can retailers do to overcome these issues and how can they provide customers with a positive experience for shoppers in-store with all of this going on? 

Here are our top tips for improving shopping experiences amidst the pandemic: 

Changing Store Layouts

Most retail stores are designed to get people into the shop and then once they’re inside, to go deeper into the shop to explore their range of products. 

With casual browsing and trying things on (when it comes to clothes) less of an option these days, there may be more of an emphasis on quicker shopping experiences. 

As a result, stores may want to put their best or most-popular products on display towards the front of the store, making it easier for customers to find exactly what they are looking for and minimising the time spent in-store, whilst at the same time allowing more customers in.  

Utilising New Payment Methods

Cash sales have been on the decline for a while now with more and more people using their cards or phones for payments, and the impact of Covid has only helped to speed this up.

With the threat of cash payments spreading the virus, many stores are switching to contactless payment methods whilst some stores have even gone one step further and have begun using other ways of allowing their customers to scan and pay for goods themselves. 

A great example of this is Uni-Qlo and Decathlon, who have both introduced self-scanning machines without the need for actually scanning items individually. 

Instead, you can simply put your clothes or basket into the space provided at the self-service till, and your goods will automatically be scanned and calculated. Once you’ve then paid by card, you can put them in your bag and leave the store, without the need for a cashier.

In addition to this, Scan & Go systems have also been adopted by many retailers and supermarkets. 

These systems allow consumers to use their smartphones or a handset to scan goods as they walk around the store and then pay for them at dedicated tills at the end of your shop. Decathlon, as well as both Sainsbury’s and Asda, have introduced these and they could provide retailers with a way of avoiding large queues at tills whilst at the same time aiding social distancing rules. 

3D Virtual Changing Rooms

Virtual Changing Rooms

With changing rooms being closed in high street stores due to safety concerns, in many stores, consumers are simply left to guess their size when it comes to clothing and perhaps unsuprisingly, this has led to a sharp increase in the number of items being returned this year. 

This is a pain in itself, but in addition, items that are returned then have to be kept “under quarantine” for a certain period, before they can be returned to the shop floor. 

Not ideal. 

Now, imagine a world where you don’t need to try on clothes. No more queuing for changing rooms and no faffing around trying different sizes. Sound good? 

Well, virtual changing rooms and try-ons are exactly how some retailers have started to combat the issue of changing rooms being closed. 

According to this article from CNBC, in the United States, Fit:Match is teaming with mall owner Brookfield to open spaces where people can receive a 3D body scan to find the right sizes for their bodies when shopping in stores. 

Mac Cosmetics have also installed virtual try-on at their flagship Liverpool ONE store which allows customers to try on an extensive range of eye and lip shades through application to photos or live videos. 

By taking away the need to physically touch or try on products in-store, and introducing technology like this, retailers can help customers ensure that they make the right purchases and at the same time, ensure that the number of returns and therefore “quarantined” clothing is reduced.   

Virtual Queueing 

The thought of queuing outside a retail shop is one that isn’t very enticing for me and to be honest, if I can’t walk straight in, I’m probably not going to bother. 

I can imagine I’m not alone in thinking that. 

Although not a retailer, I had my first virtual queuing experience when visiting Nandos during the government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme after lockdown had been lifted this summer. 

A hugely popular restaurant chain in the UK, and one where you can’t typically book a table, I knew that once restaurants were open again, Nandos would be busy, and with discounted food on offer there, this was only going to be worse. 

Despite being worried about potentially queuing in the street for ages, I had a craving and I decided to give it a go. When I got to Nandos,  I was greeted with a sign asking me to join the virtual queue. 

Nandos Virtual Queue

I scanned the QR code which took me to the site and then input my details to either make a booking or join the queue. The queue was around 20 minutes, so I joined it and decided to go for a wander rather than wait outside and within 10 minutes I was sent an alert saying that my table was ready. Simple. 

If I’d have known it was that easy, I’d have booked a table or joined the queue before I set off, which arguably would have made my experience better than pre-Covid.  

Retailers have also adopted this approach when it comes to letting customers into their stores to reduce the need for physical queues and enforcing social distancing. 

In many instances, shoppers can simply scan a QR code, or send a text to a particular number, to either join a virtual queue or book a fixed timeslot for getting into shops. 

In my opinion, the more retailers that adopt this approach the better, and if you want to get ahead and ensure that your customers aren’t left waiting in line, you’ll want to implement a virtual queue or booking system as soon as possible. 

Creating Omni-Channel Marketing/Buying Experiences 

When it comes to shopping, whether it be online, on the phone, via mobile or in-store, today’s consumer is looking for a seamless unified approach that provides them with an integrated customer experience. 

Or in other words, an omni-channel marketing experience. 

But what exactly does that mean?

Well, Omni-channel marketing provides customers with a completely seamless shopping experience from the first touchpoint to the last and if retailers want to outperform their competitors then if they haven’t already, it’s something they’ll need to start thinking about. 

As Anna Brettle, Founder of Stellar explains:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that consumers are choosing omni-channel buying experiences and retailers need to adapt this methodology for the future. 

Customers are moving seamlessly between online and offline experiences, and are open to retailers who can best facilitate these transitions. The explosion in mobile retail means consumers are now researching products online and purchasing in-store but for retailers to future-proof their businesses amidst the pandemic, they need to capture customers at different touchpoints of their shopping experience. 

The solution here is to focus on creating a second-to-none customer experience across all channels. Customers are looking for retailers they can trust to deliver exceptional service time and again. When transitioning between online and in-store experiences, customers not only want the same products to be available, they also want their experience to be seamless.

If retailers can create this type of fluid online/offline experience for their customers, they can continue to build and interact with their customers even in this new normal retail environment. 

A challenge that retailers will need to overcome is building and maintaining loyalty with their customers in an evolving retail landscape. Brands can look to deliver retail experiences and integrate these experiential strategies across interaction points – including online interactions, in-store sales, and home service technicians – creating an integrated, omni-channel customer experience.”

The reality is, for today’s consumer, omni-channel experiences aren’t just something they’d like to have, it’s something that they’d come to expect

For many people, it’s not uncommon to browse products online and on a mobile device and have an idea of what they want before going into a physical store. 

In an omni-channel marketing world, retailers will need to make sure that they are reaching their customers across all relevant channels and offering them a consistent experience.  

As Gigi J.K., CEO of Virtina says: 

“The new reality suggests that going into 2021, retailers will have a hard time drawing consumers into stores. However, they can diversify their channels and look to meet consumer expectations on various touchpoints. Going ahead, they’d need to consolidate all their sales channels into one to achieve proper omni-channel growth. 

In essence, complement that brick and mortar store with online selling. Overlooking digital channels could cost these retail brands dearly. From marketing to fulfillment, every facet of their business will need digital solutions soon”.

Our Omni-Channel Marketing Tips for Retailers

So what can retailers do to ensure a seamless, integrated experience for customers across each of their channels? How can they adopt an omni-channel approach? 

Here are our top tips: 

  • Maintain your branding and have consistent messaging across each of your channels. This means consistent imagery and logos as well as a consistent tone of voice. You can check out our post about tone of voice guidelines & why they matter here 
  • Set clear goals and objectives of your omni-channel experience and share it with key stakeholders and departments across your business – when it comes to omni-channel experiences, having each teams buy-in and everyone on the same page is key to success
  • Take the time to understand your audience and focus on the channels that matter to them. Although it might seem like a bold move, consider removing channels or profiles on sites that don’t matter to your audience.
  • Undertake a personalised approach to your marketing 
    • Think about proximity notifications – can you send notifications to customers (who have opted in) notifying them about exclusive offers when they visit your store?
    • Can you send your customers reminders about points earned or exclusive discounts to encourage purchasing?
  • Think about displaying your social media feeds in-store – little touches like this can help to improve a customers brand experience
  • Ensure the user’s experience on both the mobile and desktop version of your site mirror each other

These are just a few of the ways you can improve your customer’s experience through omni-channel marketing. For more inspiration, you can also find 15 examples of brands with brilliant omni-channel experience over on the Hubspot blog here


As I mentioned at the start of this post, 2020 has been a particularly tough time for many retailers and it looks like that’ll continue into 2021. 

The reality for many retailers is that if they stand still and don’t adapt, they’ll struggle. 

There are many different challenges facing retailers going into 2021 and we’ve covered just a few of them in this post. To recap, here are the top challenges we’ve spoken about: 

  • Moving or focussing your business online
  • Creating new retail experiences in-store
  • Hiring a digital team
  • Creating omni-channel marketing/buying experiences 

For smaller, more boutique retailers, a focus should be on ensuring their well equipped to sell their products online and to start thinking about their digital marketing efforts. 

For larger, well-established retailers, they’ll want to think about how they can outperform their competitors through their marketing efforts, as well as ensuring that they can create outstanding in-store experiences and omni-channel marketing/buying experiences. 

We’d also love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on some of the key challenges ahead for retailers and even some of your solutions. Please leave us a comment below or contact me with your thoughts and we’ll get them added to the post! 

If you’d like to speak to a member of our team about how we can help you with any of the above or even your hiring needs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Give us a call on 01273733433 or leave us a message via the form below. We’d love to help. 

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