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Retailing: A Mixed (Shopping) Bag of Online and In-store

An illustration of a person ordering gifts on their smartphone Photo by Getty Images

01/04/2021

Online shopping was already gaining steadily on brick-and-mortar retail. But when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered stores and forced people to stay at home, e-commerce sales skyrocketed. In May 2020, online retail sales reached $77.4 billion, 30% higher than in May 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Retail Trade Report.

So what’s the future of retail once the pandemic is behind us?

“E-commerce is with us no matter what, but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the physical store,” says Ying Huang, associate professor of marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation in the Manning School of Business.

Huang says retailers will need to reach customers in different channels — including online, in-store and on social media — and integrate those channels into a seamless shopping experience.

“A coexistence of online and brick-and-mortar, like the growing popularity of curbside pickup during the pandemic, is key,” she says.

While dozens of established retailers, including Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew, filed for bankruptcy in 2020, Huang says that’s not entirely because of the pandemic.

“Some of these retailers were already struggling. The pandemic accelerated their fall,” says Huang, who believes that retailers that can navigate this shifting landscape may actually come out stronger in a post-COVID world.

“Retailers who have contingency plans, who can deal with changes in consumer demand and manage their supply chain, they’re not only going to survive, but also grow,” she says.