What will it take to get shoppers back into stores in 2021?

Photo: RetailWire
Dec 10, 2020

It’s no surprise that online sales have been higher than ever before during the 2020 holiday shopping season — especially on Black Friday and Cyber Monday — while in-store traffic fell by 52 percent compared to 2019. Although the demand for e-commerce shows no signs of slowing, we’re surely going to see a renewed interest in in-store shopping in the new year, particularly as vaccines slowly and carefully become more widely available. Traditional and multichannel retailers can prepare for the next shift in customer behavior by taking advantage of the post-holiday period to begin reestablishing the in-person shopping patterns lost in 2020.

For example, retailers in January and February can offer a coupon with any purchase over a certain amount — whether the transaction is online, BOPIS, curbside or in-store – that can be redeemed for an in-store discount a few weeks or months later. This will not only keep the store top of mind for shoppers going forward but also give them the opportunity to visit at a future date when they may feel more comfortable doing so.

Because January is also a prime month for returns, traditional retailers should also make the in-store return process as appealing and easy as possible — even for items that were originally purchased online. To incentivize in-store returns and encourage shoppers to come back after their initial transaction is complete, retailers can again offer a special deal or discount coupon to be applied to in-store purchases down the road.

Above all, in early 2021, retailers need to renew their commitment to keeping their stores both safe and appealing. Shoppers want to be able to ask questions, see the merchandise and get real-time support from staff members, all benefits that in-store shopping offers over online channels. Traditional retailers should take care to ensure that staff members are trained to safely work the floor and help customers as needed. Retailers must also manage inventory closely to avoid stockouts whenever possible. Shoppers who can’t find the items they want when they venture back into a store are far more likely to buy online next time.

The effects of this unusual year will continue to be felt far into the future, and 2021 is bound to deliver unexpected challenges and consumer demand shifts. By thoughtfully planning ways to encourage and support in-store shopping while continuing to adhere to all local protocols and guidelines, traditional retailers can successfully navigate the next phase of the pandemic and safely draw customers back into stores over time.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can traditional retailers best coordinate their go-to-market tactics to attract shoppers back into the stores as the pandemic subsides? What shopper offers will be most effective?

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"It’s clear that physical retail is alive and well and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The customers will be back when they feel it’s safe to do so."

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34 Comments on "What will it take to get shoppers back into stores in 2021?"

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Dick Seesel

What will get customers back into stores, restaurants, airports and movie theatres? It’s simple: Widespread acceptance and distribution of the vaccines. I think traffic will gradually return as more people feel safe getting back to normal, but safety practices introduced in 2020 aren’t going away anytime soon.

Neil Saunders

A vaccine and the virus being near-eliminated: that is ultimately what it will take to get shoppers fully engaged with stores again. And I am sure that, over time, this will come to fruition.

As for physical versus online shopping, there is no doubt that digital penetration has been elevated and will remain so even when the pandemic is over. However shops will see growth in 2021 and online penetration will drop back. Indeed, this trend is already in play. But that doesn’t mean all physical stores will survive. We have an awful lot of bad retail space out there which will continue to underperform and, ultimately, needs to be taken out of the market.

Paula Rosenblum

Once the vaccine has been administered, I think we can expect Americans to go all kinds of places — tired of being pent-up. That will have a lifespan, however. So to me the real question is, how do we keep them coming back? And the answer is the same as it was before. “Make the store a better experience.”

Oddly, Aventura Mall claims that business has been brisk throughout the pandemic. Maybe that’s why we still have so many cases down here. This may not be a popular opinion, or it may be Miami-centric, but I simply don’t think it’s possible to maintain social distancing and proper mask wearing in large spaces like malls.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 5 months ago

Good point about “making the store a better experience.” Offering coupons or discounts for in-store shopping is a short term incentive and until retailers truly improve the shopping experience to make it significantly better than the online experience, it will be increasingly more difficult to compete with digital commerce.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

It is conceivable that when the pandemic restrictions ease, there may be a backlash against remote experiences and a drive for physical reconnection. The pandemic fatigue has been most felt in the desire to interact with other persons and explore the shopping environment. Many of the suggestions in the article are worthwhile. Two simple suggestions: make the shopping experience fun again and make it safe. For example, recognize that the pandemic induced emphasis on health and hygiene has led to an increase in single-use plastic and reversed some of the preexisting focus on sustainability.

Cathy Hotka

Dick has it right. Shoppers will return to stores when they think it is safe to do so. That means mask-wearing and a vaccine program that is making progress. Don’t hold your breath; most of the parishioners at my church are still staying home, despite a 50-person limit at each service.

Michael Terpkosh

I agree with the other panelists. Once the vaccine has achieved widespread distribution, consumer are going to come out big time. Retailers don’t need to worry about how to attract shoppers back to their stores. Retailers need to worry about maintaining enough retail associates to provide excellent customer service and in-stock presence when we all are comfortable enough to get out there to shop.

Brian Cluster
The use of successful tactics is dependent on how much the retailer has learned about its shoppers over the last nine months. Are they reluctant shoppers with still some remaining concerns, promotion-driven shoppers looking for new deals, or are they experience-driven shoppers who are anticipating some interesting and fun experiences when they return? Communications and targeting efforts should be aligned with who your customers are and what they need. Regardless of the type of customer, all customers have become more digitally driven in terms of how they interact with brands and retailers. So customers are now more likely to dig deeper into product details before they make a purchase and even visit a store-specific webpage before venturing back into the physical store. Malls, mass merchants, and grocery chains have built out location-specific detail about safety, pick-up options, special section or service offerings, and promotions on their store webpages to help close the information gap for consumers. By better managing location data and sharing it on your websites, I think that this is one way to… Read more »
Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 5 months ago

I believe it will be a few things:

  1. People have to feel safe when entering stores – moreso when vaccines begin to be widely distributed;
  2. People will have to feel good about their job and the economy to be able to spend more after a time if they are uncertain and keeping their wallet closed.

Retailers will need to continue to have attractive offers and deals to get people to get out and shop.

Gene Detroyer

Shoppers will come back when it is safe!

Will they come back in the same droves as pre-pandemic? NO! They have learned new habits and new ways to shop.

I am assuming that the discussion question is really, “How do we get the shoppers back in the stores and get them off online?” It isn’t going to happen. And the tools suggested (same ol’) are the same margin crushers that retailers have been using for decades.

Throw out that old playbook. The game is different today. The question should not be how do I get them back in the store, but how do I take advantage of their new behaviors?

Brandon Rael

With every aspect of our lives impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not just the retail stores that have suffered. Our society is waiting for the stability and safety that will come with the vaccines’ mass distribution, continued safety measures, and the associated economic and job recovery.

Digital commerce has absolutely accelerated to unprecedented levels, and we should expect it to remain at or around these levels during the post-pandemic period. Leading retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Home Depot, and others were already well equipped for the pandemic, as they made the necessary investments in omnichannel digital fulfillment capabilities. BOPIS, curbside pickup, and same-day delivery are all part of the stores’ value proposition.

It’s clear that physical retail is alive and well and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The customers will be back when they feel it’s safe to do so.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 5 months ago

Until we have widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and proof that it is working, there is not much retailers can do to attract most shoppers to their stores. Even with proper safety precautions (masks and social distancing practices) many consumers aren’t willing to risk it today.

There are essentially two camps of consumers that will determine how in-store shopping will be impacted even after COVID-19 is a no longer a concern: socially starved consumers and digital converts. The socially starved consumers desperately miss social interactions and will flock back to stores as soon as it is deemed safe. Digital convert consumers have appreciated the convenience of online shopping and many of these consumers have ingrained habits that they now prefer and their in-store shopping may be limited for quite some time.

Jeff Weidauer

Shopping habits have changed forever and even post-pandemic in-store traffic will never return to its former level. Customers know their options and are now comfortable shopping online. Going to the store will be an option – not a necessity. Retailers should be focusing on providing a better in-store experience when shoppers do visit the store – without that nothing else will matter.

Bob Phibbs

Really? Discounts are the way? No. People aren’t shopping because they are waiting for a deal. They aren’t shopping because of lack of need (no office/event to go to), lack of protection (virus still on the loose) and lack of confidence that the federal government has a plan. Once those are in place, they will come again as we’ve seen in New Zealand – and without retailers paying them to do so with coupons.

Di Di Chan

Most shoppers want to go out and enjoy the full in-store shopping experience again—retailers with a system that enables both shoppers and staff to feel safe enough to do so will have a significant advantage. Reaching over 30 percent shopper adoption, the fastest-growing in-store technology solution to address the pandemic is touch-free scan and go mobile checkouts. Top retailers incorporating scan and go as an option in stores thus far includes Walmart (as part of their Walmart+ benefits), Sam’s Club, Kroger, Wegmans, H-E-B, Ahold, 7-Eleven, Dollar General, Macy’s, Disney, Saintsbury, Asda, M&S, Tesco, Waitrose, Co-op, Londis, Budgens, Spar, Okay, McKeever Price Chopper, Westside Market, Fairway Market, Mother’s Market, and Big Y.

David Mascitto

As we’ve already seen anxious customers lining up to enter their favorite fast fashion or electronics retailers over the past few months, the appetite for in-person shopping and “retail therapy” is still very much alive. Once customers feel safe about shopping again (if they are vaccinated, cases subside etc.) stores will start to see increased foot traffic. However if retailers and malls want to really activate to drive foot traffic, they’ll need to incentivize customers. Malls will need to make themselves destinations that offer experiences beyond just shopping (and eating) with activities, exhibitions, shows, etc. For stores, beyond the easy draw of discounts and promotions, retailers will also need to make the in-store experience worthwhile by fusing digital and physical experiences.

Lisa Goller

Brick-and-mortar advantages — immediacy, certainty and sensory experiences — will beckon shoppers back to stores.

Retailers can emphasize how consumers can promptly pick products rather than wait days for their arrival.

Certainty matters, especially in apparel and electronics, the top types of e-commerce product returns. Stores give consumers confidence about whether fashions fit and shoppers can test gadgets before they buy. Also, retailers can allow shoppers to start the returns process online and complete it in stores to save time.

Vibrant, immersive in-store merchandising appeals to the senses more than a product landing page. Seeing and feeling the items can make consumers more willing to buy in stores.

In-store specials and limited-time offers of innovative and popular products will also boost traffic to physical stores.

Rodger Buyvoets

Besides the mentions around vaccine distribution, I believe this is the time where the integration between online and offline worlds can be made for retailers. We’re already seeing some great examples of click and collect where online shoppers are being driven back into stores again. This type of integration between online/offline then being potentially enriched with special price offers could help revive the offline retail relationship – this time with more data and customer-centricity!

Aside from this, I also believe this would be the moment to think around creative loyalty programs, where shoppers receive additional benefits from going into stores. But as everyone else has already mentioned, safety will be the biggest driver of foot traffic.

Rich Kizer

I believe that there will be a wave of consumers coming who are ready and anxious to experience in-store discoveries. It’s the social thing that has been missing for some time now. Certainly retailers will “buy back” customers, but hopefully not so deep and consistently aggressive that the customers expect it as routine, which can lead to disappointment in future visits. The smart retailers will create the look of a new store by completely re-setting the floor layout and creating new ways of merchandise presentations. This will make customers find new pathways instead of going directly to what they always bought, thus showing them new product categories and items. When Disney reopened Orlando, the parks and stores were set to perfection, thus creating a great perceptions and future positive expectations.

I think new frequent rewards programs will be critical to renew loyalty, along with a great experience and a staff ready to rock. At this time, retailers can do anything except sit down.

Mark Heckman

Beyond vaccines and lower case counts, stores should be proactive in the way they merchandise and lay out their stores. First, they need to better understand why shoppers prefer to shop in-store. Chief among those reasons are sensory and experiential elements, which you cannot replicate online. In-store theater is going to become more important than ever along with clear messaging that helps the shopper make quicker purchase decisions. Secondly, shoppers will need space to navigate. Packing too much inventory and displays in stores that restrict the shopper’s ability to keep their distance will serve as yet another reason to stay away. Lastly, retailers should work to connect the in-store experience to the online experience, by extending access to additional inventories not carried in-store through placement of ordering kiosks and other technologies. Shoppers are not going to stop buying online and if they view the retailer as a true omnichannel resource, that retailer will have a better chance to gain their loyalty.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Unfortunately, the biggest traffic driver falls outside a retailer’s control: kicking COVID-19 to the curb through mass vaccination and eventual herd immunity. Until then, continue to invest in engaging your customers online, keep them connected to your brand, communicate thoughtfully, and ensure your stores and associates are loudly signaling “welcome, this is a safe shopping environment.”

Lee Peterson

We just did a study on this very question with 2,500 consumers and of the 25 choices given, food ranked in three of the top five, including number one. Healthy food, snacks/coffee within stores and a sponsored farmers market were very strong in terms of “increasing visitation.” A little surprising but, as an old mentor of mine once told me, running a store should be like having a party at your house every day — so it makes sense!

Jeff Sward

Right — vaccines + safe shopping. That’s what it will take to get the masses back into stores and malls. That’s the macro picture.

But what about the micro picture? What will it take to get the customer into one store versus another store?

I hope it’s not a revisiting of race-to-the-bottom tactics. I like the way the article talks about rewarding in-store returns and rewarding in-store shopping. But the reward doesn’t have to be in the form of discounting. How about great, differentiated product? Great storytelling? Great (safe) service? Explore + Experiment = Experience. This has been the most trying period I can remember in my time in retail. If retailers did not use this moment to examine their what/why/how then they deserve whatever may come next. People will want to go out shopping, and buying — big time. Now give them a reason to pick your store versus all their other choices.

Peter Charness

I agree with others — when it’s “safe” (vaccines are here and coronavirus is out of the news in particular) there will be a huge rebound of in-store shopping. But after people get that out of their system, a few fundamentals may weigh in. A percentage of online shopping across all categories will remain higher than it was pre-pandemic. Disposable income for a lot of households will remain depressed. So I’d expect a huge Christmas 2021, and then a more steady state division of in-store vs. online.

Ricardo Belmar
Consumers will return to stores when two things happen – they feel safe doing so, and retailers give them a strong reason to shop in-store versus any of the digital options they’ve become accustomed to in 2020. That may sound a bit simplistic, but the reality is that consumers want to shop in-store, but until vaccines are widely distributed and consumers feel that enough of the population has taken them, they won’t feel safe shopping in stores. After that, retailers need to do more of what they were doing pre-pandemic to get shoppers into their stores. 2020 gave us a blip in shopping behavior. Yes more people are relying on e-commerce now and the growth level has skyrocketed. But this was driven by an inability to shop in-store. Now many consumers have grown accustomed to the newfound conveniences in curbside pickup and online ordering for groceries, and other product categories. And yes, new habits have been formed that will be difficult to change. However one thing has been lost in this process – the ability… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

I believe we’re overthinking this. Most retailers are already more than ready to welcome shoppers back to their stores. Of course, many never stopped (e.g., food, big box, etc. — but that’s another argument). Once shoppers feel it is safe to do so, they’ll be back in droves. There are regions/cities that have more apprehension than others. And state/local governments are defining what is happening where and when for retailers. So much of this is truly out of the hands of retailers. Let’s get past this mess and retailing will be stronger than ever.

Shep Hyken

Three ways:

  1. Be very obvious and transparent about safety and health protocols in your business. This is a start.
  2. Promote properly to customers with a more personal approach (called personalization).
  3. Integrate your eCommerce/website presence with the in-store experience. This gives consumers the chance to “research” what they will be buying before they walk in. Promote that idea to customers to help them have an even better in-store experience.
Harley Feldman

Shoppers will want to come back to stores especially after all of their time at home due to the pandemic. The socialization to be with friends and sales staff will be in high demand once shoppers have been vaccinated. Coupons, sales and discounts from retailers will encourage this behavior.


First phase of recovery is already underway, as retail footfall declines are reducing gradually from their low point in Spring. Next phase of recovery will be aligned to vaccine rollout — which could take another 12 months based upon phased approach to distribution.

Throughout this period, retailers should use CRM to remind customers of the safe environment that has been created for them, and the behavior expected in-store (curbside pickup, mandatory masks, distancing, available hand sanitizer etc.).

I think it will be holiday season ’21 before traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels, but retailers can continue to recover in the meantime by making sure their multi-channel strategy is firing, and their CRM is pro-active.

Craig Sundstrom

Before reading the choices, I was ready to suggest — facetiously — coupons … and there they are (apparently seriously).

I think all of these miss the point: it’s not money that’s keeping people from the stores, unless of course they’re unemployed and have none to spend — it’s health concerns. What’s needed is the assurance of a safe environment. How much an individual retailer can influence that, of course, is the issue.

Joan Treistman

I agree with everyone who stresses safe environment over discounts/coupons for bringing more shoppers into the store. But in this time of disinformation and general confusion, retailers have to be very clear in their communication of what they mean by safe and what the in-store experience will be like. I think a simple video showing a shopper shopping, how they navigate in the store and get to experience what they came for. I’m not suggesting this is an advertising execution (I leave that to the creatives), but more like a YouTube video that you would use for instructions.

As for the coupon to be redeemed in-store only, that would be a turn-off to me. And it would make me question the sincerity of any other promotion the retailer offered.

Carlos Arambula

Aside from safety issues due to the pandemic, retailers will have to adapt and/or evolve.

The schism between online convenience and brick & mortar needs to be closed and integrated, it needs to be seamless. Brick & mortar employees need to be trained to extend customer service to online sales and include virtual sales as part of their offering. Product availability should be beyond the store inventory and customers should not feel they are on their own navigating the retailers’ website but guided by a knowledgeable store associate.

Retailers like Nordstrom are already doing this and it’s aided by the incentive that sales associates have the ability to earn from online sales.

Kenneth Leung

Based on the crowds and Costco and Target, people are willing to shop in person when they see the value of the trip, vaccine or not. Widespread adoption of vaccine will help more casual shoppers go back to the store, but you need to give them the merchandise and reason to go there.

Trinity Wiles

First and foremost, safety. Secondly, An End-to-End Customer-Centric Approach to Business.

Businesses that weren’t adopting a customer-centric approach were already starting to fail before the pandemic. Consumers have had increasingly high expectations from free and fast shipping to seamless online purchasing experiences. Businesses that will thrive will have an end to end solution for their customers from product discovery, to in-store, to social media integrated solutions.

Every Store is a Flagship.

Experience in stores is going to become a key differentiator among brands. Retail foot traffic was struggling prior to the pandemic. However, consumers will have a new appreciation for retail. They will expect novel experiences. Stores will offer an omnichannel experience with BOPIS, the option for roadside pickups, interactive technologically enhanced and personalized in-store experiences.

"It’s clear that physical retail is alive and well and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The customers will be back when they feel it’s safe to do so."

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