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Top 10 retail technology stories of 2021


The year started with another lockdown, dashing hopes for Christmas plans and the usual rush for January sales.

Covid-19 made 2020 a tough year for retailers in an already difficult climate for physical stores, and as the pandemic continued into 2021, recovery for retail and hospitality was stalled by changing rules and precautions.

But the pandemic did shine a light on retail’s successes. Online shopping boomed and those with technology plans already in place thrived in the wake of increasingly digital customer behaviour.

1. Pandemic brings good online sales growth for smaller retailers

En masse working from home and online shopping weren’t devastating for all retailers – in fact, research by retail industry association IMRG found smaller online retailers saw sales growth in 2020.

Speaking at eCommerce Expo’s virtual 2021 event, Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at IMRG, said small, medium and large online businesses all saw growth, but that sales were particularly strong for smaller brands.

Mulcahy put this down to consumers replicating their usual shopping behaviour online instead of in stores.

2. Asda bags ex-Marks and Spencer CIO

The pandemic did not slow shifts in retailer plans, and 2021 saw Marks and Spencer’s ex-CIO, Carl Dawson, jump ship to become CIO at supermarket Asda.

Walmart had already confirmed plans to sell Asda to Issa brothers and TDR Capital, offering a possible explanation for the need to separate from Walmart’s IT systems.  

With Dawson’s history of IT management in the retail sector, having previously been CIO of internet retailing at Tesco and group CIO for Shop Direct and Thomas Cook, it’s likely he will be a good fit to help with upcoming changes.

3. Ocado sees 19.8% increase in retail business revenue

It’s no secret online retailers performed well across 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic forced consumers to shift their habits online, especially when it came to grocery shopping.

The first half of 2021 saw revenue for Ocado’s retail business grew by 19.8% compared with the same period in 2020.

This was despite Ocado claiming there was a drop in basket sizes in the second quarter of 2021 as restrictions began to ease.

4. Tech and new experiences tackling trouble at t’mall

Even before the pandemic, physical retail was struggling under the pressure of increasingly digital customer behaviour – shopping centres especially have been trying to make a shift in recent years, away from simply shopping locations and instead towards centres for experiences.

Investigating the issues facing shopping centres in the UK – research group Local Data Company (LDC) on behalf of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) trade body found more than 12% of units have been empty for a year or more – we looked at how technology can help shopping centres shift towards a more lucrative future.

5. M&S launches initiative to hire software engineers

The past two years have seen retailers looking to hire digital workers in a bid to help them tackle the already shifting customer behaviours exacerbated by the pandemic.

M&S was no exception, and in the summer the retailer launched an initiative called M&OS aimed at finding skilled workers to fill 70 software engineering and digital roles over the next year.

M&S’s half-year results showed online sales accounting for 34.4% of M&S clothing and home goods, clearly displaying the increasingly digital direction in which the retailer is headed.

6. Depop launches programme to help charities sell online

When people are in need, the British public often step in and help out. Several sources suggest the public has been more giving during the pandemic as early lockdowns sparked people’s willingness to give to charity and help others.

In 2021, e-commerce reseller Depop launched a programme to help charities reach an online audience and encourage people to sell second-hand items through its marketplace.

The brand’s Charity Seller Programme, already used by the British Heart Foundation and Oxfam, offers charities a place to sell goods online as well as tailored support and resources.

7. Argos topped online sales for sports and outdoor gear in 2020

Lockdown saw people at home for long periods of time in 2020 and 2021, causing a surge in online sales for various market segments.

This included sports gear for home gyms, and the top 10 online sports and outdoor providers made a total of $2.67bn in 2020.

Out front for sports and outdoor goods was Argos, which made $541m in e-commerce sales in 2020 for sports and outdoor gear, higher than some of the leading sports retailers in the UK, including Sports Direct, Nike and Adidas.

The retailer even outperformed Amazon for online sales in sports and outdoor gear, with Amazon making $367m in net online sales for the segment.

8. How in-store technology is supporting retail’s sustainability agenda

With sustainability a leading issue throughout 2021, especially with climate change conference COP26 taking place in Scotland, we took a deep dive into how some retailers are using technology to drive sustainability in UK retail, looking at the technology retailers such as Boots, Costa Coffee, Co-op and Morrisons are using to aid reducing, reusing and recycling.

9. Consumers say supermarkets among best at social engagement

The younger generation loves to interact with, and shop from, brands using online and social media platforms, and more people being forced to shop online during lockdown also meant an increased number of people were using digital platforms to interact with brands.

When it comes to which brands meet customer expectations when it comes to engaging via social, customers rated supermarkets top, according to research by Twilio.

But what customers say, despite what was delivered, doesn’t always match up, with the research also finding consumers saying speed of response from a brand as the best indicator of good customer engagement, but more than half of consumers also saying they want better interactions with brands despite response times speeding up as a result of the pandemic.

10. Arkwright’s till, Tesco GetGo and retail tech’s non-linear innovation journey

While retail may not be the best-known sector for technology adoption, it has still come a long way in the past 40 years.

To round up the year, we compare some of the more high-tech checkouts, such as grab-and-go apps allowing consumers to leave a store without checking out, to the temperamental till in 70s BBC sitcom, Open All Hours.



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