THE PROS AND CONS OF PANDEMIC-ERA RETAIL
The unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus in 2020 led to success stories for retailers who leaned into e-commerce and omnichannel strategies.
Just a little more than a year ago, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced many brick-and-mortar retailers to close their physical locations. For companies that already had or were able to pivot to e-commerce and omnichannel operations, the impact was surprisingly transformative. Companies such as Amazon and Apple were able to turn 2020 into a stronger fiscal year — both companies saw CE sales in North America more than double from the previous year — than less prepared or nimble retailers. Omnichannel-savvy brick-and-mortar stores that capitalized on digital commerce options for curbside pickup also benefited, with buy online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS) sales growing by more than 563 percent in April 2020 versus April 2019, and total online sales growing by more than 193 percent in the same period, according to client data shared by e-commerce platform provider Kibo.
Big-box stores, warehouse clubs, and pharmacies, along with independent consumer electronics and major appliance dealers, were designated as “essential retail” and therefore able to keep their stores open and weather the COVID storm. GameStop, for example, argued in March 2020 that its gaming products and office supplies made it an essential retailer. Department stores with mostly soft goods such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney, which closed more than 100 stores last year due to ongoing struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, were not as fortunate and had to wait longer before they could re-open.
It wasn’t the only advantage consumer technology retailers had. As the pandemic forced people indoors for an entire year, sales in nearly every subset of CE skyrocketed. Besides playing more video games on brand-new consoles, house-bound consumers acquired more smartphones and TVs than the year prior. According to NPD technology and mobile analyst Steve Baker, CE sales revenue for the 12 months ending in March 2021 was 23 percent higher than in the same period ending in March 2020, when the pandemic kicked in. The appliances sector was no different, with the added twist of upgrades and repairs due to greater use of appliances by people who were now living and working in their homes 24/7. Countertop appliances, in particular, experienced a 30 percent increase in sales in 2020, according to NPD food and beverage industry analyst Darren Seifer.
Sadly, many previous Top 101 regulars — Fry’s, Cameta Camera, and Shopko — closed their doors for good in 2020, while other familiar names have been acquired and subsumed into other retailers’ portfolios. We’ve replaced those former Top 101 stalwarts with some exclusively e-commerce destinations, including the direct-to-consumer operations of CE manufacturers and a few famous brand names that continue to reinvent or relaunch themselves under new owners.
There are plenty of retailers that we have missed — increasingly swift technology disruptions mean that researching, compiling, analyzing, and forecasting this list is more challenging every year. Now that omnichannel is the new normal, any manufacturer or brand — even magazines and other media outlets — can easily set up and scale an e-commerce operation. Which companies belong on this list next year? It could be even more unprecedented.