The pandemic didn't kill stores but they'll never be the same again
- The pandemic's effect on retail has lingered even though life has mostly returned to normal.
- Stores are becoming mini fulfillment centers and in-store shopping is now often touchless and cashier-less.
Shopping looks a little different these days.
Brick-and-mortar stores are acting like mini fulfillment centers. Self-checkout is becoming more common. Cash is out and QR codes are in.
These shifts, which began with the pandemic, have lingered even as life in the US has mostly returned to normal. They've created a brave new world of retail that looks different than even three years ago, and worlds away from the retail heyday prior to the 2008 Recession — except for one major retail trend that's been resurrected in 2022.
Here's what's changed, and what's come back from the dead.
Stores have become a lot like fulfillment centers
The pandemic didn't kill brick-and-mortar retail, but it did change it.
Retail locations still sell goods to in-person shoppers, sure, but they've also been drafted into the battle to keep up with e-commerce demand. Rather than rely solely on fulfillment centers to process and ship online orders, retailers like Ulta, Macy's, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Walmart, and more have started tapping into the inventory held by stores, too. That allows them to ship more goods and avoid telling customers something's out of stock, plus, items shipped from a store may arrive on the customer's doorstep faster than if it came from a regional distribution center, according to The Wall Street Journal.
What's more, practices like curbside pickup and buy online, pick-up in store — known as BOPIS — aren't going away. While those options were available for shoppers pre-pandemic, they gained steam once lockdowns kept everyone at home. Nearly three years later, consumers have come to rely on them: 33% of adults under 50 say they're likely to keep using curbside pickup, according to a study from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Plus, stores are becoming hubs for online returns. Returns are increasing thanks to the online shopping boom, and it's become an expensive headache for retailers, so much so that they've started charging shoppers to send back their unwanted goods — if they don't want to pay, they can return the products to stores for free.
Customer interaction isn't the No. 1 priority anymore
Customer service has long been at the center of the retail and hospitality experience, going as far back as the first Ritz hotel in the 1800s and informing the rise of department stores at post-World War II shopping malls.
But these days, customer service looks totally different.
Now, it's all about speed, convenience, and a touchless experience: many restaurant menus and retail signage still comes in the form of QR codes, both customers and retailers have largely abandoned cash, and self-checkout is gaining store space at big-box and apparel retailers like Kohl's, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Self-checkout is largely a hit with customers: 85% of shoppers perceive it as faster than waiting in line for a cashier and 60% say they prefer self-checkout over checking out with an associate, according to a 2021 survey conducted by retail technology firm Raydiant.
But it's also a cost-cutting move: self-checkout requires fewer in-store employees, and labor is one of the biggest expenses of brick-and-mortar retailing. Labor, or the lack thereof, was also a factor in stores like Walmart, 7-Eleven, and McDonald's reducing their operating hours, effectively ending 24-hour shopping. Almost three years later, those long store hours haven't really returned.
Big-box retailers are opening stores again
With all these changes, you'd think brick-and-mortar retail would be on its deathbed. But it's actually quite the opposite.
Though the retail apocalypse doomed plenty of retail locations before the pandemic, and a swath of stores shut down in 2020, the picture looks different in 2022 and heading into 2023. Big-box retailers are opening more stores than they're closing for the first time in years, despite experts warning that brick-and-mortar would never recover from the pandemic.
Discount retailer Burlington has said it will open 87 net new stores this fiscal year, Ross Stores plans to add 92 net new locations this year, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls owner TJX has opened 104 stores this year, and Barnes & Noble is expanding by 30 new stores next year, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Though there are still some retailers whose store count may dwindle in 2023 — department stores chief among them — the openings are a sign of a surprisingly strong period in brick-and-mortar, one that hasn't been seen in at least 15 years.
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