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Survey Confirms: Retailers, Shoppers Ready to Roar Back

If you’ve been out to a mall lately, you know what’s happening because you can feel it in the air. People are coming out of their long COVID-19 hibernation, and they are eager to shop. This is thrilling news for retailers. After a 2020 that challenged their very existence, brands are bullish on a big comeback as they plan for a gradually normalizing 2021.

In fact, shopping levels in the second half of 2021 could rise to an all-time high as Americans begin to revisit long-delayed plans and spend the money they saved while locked down. Brands will have to invest to keep the new audiences they gained during pandemic shopping as some habits begin to shift back to pre-pandemic cadences. And vaccine rollouts could be a strong indicator of what audiences are ready to fully embrace pre-COVID activities.

In January, RetailMeNot surveyed more than 5,000 consumers on their evolving habits, their upcoming purchase plans and their expectations for retailers in a post-pandemic environment. We also spoke with 200 senior retail marketing leaders. The results paint a complete picture of 2021’s retail outlook.

New Shopper Behaviors
Without question, COVID-19 has changed the way most Americans view and approach retail. Nearly three in four shoppers (74%) say the virus has impacted their shopping behaviors in some way, and 42% of people expect these changes to be permanent. Most notable is a trend (reported by 44%) toward purchasing online items much farther in advance to allay supply concerns.

Deals Still Matter
Seven out of 10 Americans reported that finding a discount or offer is more important to them now than it’s ever been. Retailers take note: Shoppers said the top-two drivers for them to shop with certain brands in 2021 were better deals or discounts on online items (54%) and exclusive in-store deals (43%). Shoppers have also become savvier in the past year, as 66% (particularly younger shoppers) said they now know about more places to find discounts.

Boom Areas
What are the top-three things people are most looking forward to doing as the pandemic recedes? Vacationing, traveling to visit family and dining out. Among the categories in which Americans are likely to spend more as the year progresses are groceries (29%), ordering takeout/delivery (23%), travel (21%), home renovations (21%) and technology products used for leisure (18%).

Expectations on the Rise
In addition to costs, retailers are struggling to stay competitive with shipping times as customer expectations rise. More than three in five retailers (63%) told us offering expedited shipping has actually hurt their margins. Keeping customers satisfied remains a high priority for retailers, 73% of whom concede they would rather have lower sales than fail to meet customer expectations on expedited shipping.

In-Store Considerations
How about in-store shopping? With 86% of retailers confident in-store shopping will return this year to normal levels of foot traffic and sales, adherence to safety precautions will continue to play a big part in consumer-shopping behavior.

Restaurants and Dining
Raise your hand if you’ve missed dining out in the last year. As more people come back into the mix for restaurant dining, it’s a good time to acknowledge that the pandemic has changed expectations. Our data shows a virtually equal number of diners (88%) will now choose a restaurant for the health and safety protocols it follows as for the price of its food (87%).

Rampant Optimism
Let’s end by focusing on a word we’re all happy to welcome back: OPTIMISM. Optimism is the word of the day for shoppers, retailers and everyone else rooting for a full economic recovery.

For marketers, COVID-19 has left a lasting impact on plans. Nearly seven in 10 retailers (67%) have made permanent changes to their marketing spend structure in the past year. These changes have them hopeful about their future, as 72% expressed confidence in reaching 2021 Q1 sales goals.

For shoppers, they’re starting to find money in their pockets. Some are looking to roll over holiday gains to make retail purchases. Roughly half of our January survey respondents were expecting to receive stimulus money. A solid majority (58%) were expecting to receive a tax refund as well.

Here’s to riding this wave of optimism into a new, positive era for American retail.

Lauren Cooley is senior VP of retail and brand solutions for RetailMeNot.

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