Photo of a retail shopping center displaying an escalator and many levels

Return of retail

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” So said Mark Twain in a cable from London soon after learning that U.S. newspapers had mistakenly published his obituary. 

A similar message could be sent to pundits who have, for many years now, predicted the demise of big-box retail. Over the past several years there have been a handful of retailers whose misfortunes have reinforced this notion and, needless to say, our current economic and medical crisis has already claimed a number of retail victims and may claim even more. Notwithstanding this fact, many American retailers are strong and vibrant and at no risk of disappearing. 

Need proof? Look only to the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, where many big-box retailers were deemed “essential” to consumers, and allowed to remain open in virtually every jurisdiction, even as stay-at-home orders sprung up across the country. At the high-water point there were more than 100 state and local orders, each of them making specific exemptions for many big-box retailers. Yes, some of those businesses sold groceries, but others sold home or auto repairs supplies while others sold consumer electronics. 

Of course, online sales did explode during this time, but, even as that was the case, stores across the country saw people ready to don masks, get out of their cars and go shopping. There is every reason to believe that customers who shopped physical retail in the face of a pandemic will be just as inclined to shop when the pandemic is over, if not much more so.

Yet another reason to bet on retail continuing to thrive is the fact that most are increasingly becoming “multi-channel,” a fancy phrase for being equally accessible online and in-person. Not surprisingly, more and more consumers expect a seamless shopping experience as they move between the virtual and real world. In fact, an astonishingly high number of people report using multiple methods of shopping…at the same time. What this means is that a physical retail presence has moved from being a distinct, singular method of consumerism to just one component of an integrated shopping experience. 

The most obvious example of this integration is “shop online, pick up in store.” For many retailers, a significant percentage of online orders are actually fulfilled when the shopper picks up the item at their closest store. This means the consumer can enjoy the ease of ordering a product online and the equally appreciated convenience of having that product in their hands, often in an hour or less and often via curbside pickup without leaving their car. Once again, stores are no longer an island unto themselves and have become, for the best run retailers, a key part of their strategy. 

It has been said we live in an age where mediocre retailing will no longer cut it. That is certainly true. Said a bit differently, the big box retailers who know their customer and are obsessed with finding new ways to serve them how, when and where they want are not just viable, they are thriving. 

To do this, retailers will need to rely on effective, targeted communications. Clearly marketing will play a role in this effort, but internal and external communications professionals are as important as ever. For instance, retailers must be able to reliably communicate with their employees regarding their safety, 
hearing their concerns and addressing them not just with the right operational decisions, but with clear and effective internal communications. Externally, a similar narrative must be told, giving customers the comfort they seek during the pandemic. More broadly, the kind of multi-channel customer experience described above, precisely because it’s designed to meet the customer need in every possible way, requires a more nuanced communications approach than may have historically be found in a corporate PR team. 

As we look ahead, the future for retail is as interesting and innovative as it’s ever been. To anyone who might argue otherwise, Mark Twain might have said: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” 

Matt Furman is Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Best Buy Co., Inc., the world’s largest consumer electronics retailer. He is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.