Steve helps organizations understand and respond to retail disruption by creating customer-centric, memorable and profitable growth strategies.

Retail’s Looming Question: If You Open It, Will They Come?

Across the United States—and in many hard hit international markets—so called non-essential retail is beginning to reopen. While the precise timing and specific methods of operation vary by geography, the theoretical ability of consumers to traffic physical stores will be materially greater in the next six weeks than it was during the months of March and April.

Of course, just because stores or restaurants can open doesn’t mean they should or will. Quite a few national chains and local independents alike have already indicated they will delay resuming operations (beyond curbside pick-up) out of health concerns for their employees and customers and/or the often poor economics of operating at dramatically reduced capacity.

Yet whether a brand opts to open in a matter of days or weeks is only one part of the retail rebound equation. Of paramount importance is the degree to which consumers will actually decide to turn up, their willingness to part with their cash once there, and how they will choose to spend it.

In normal times predicting consumer behavior can be quite challenging. Right now it is next to impossible. Not only is this pandemic unlike any other health and economic crisis we have seen in our lifetimes, it comes amid the daily drumbeat of new information concerning the virus’s ongoing impact and often shifting narratives from policy makers and influencers. Nevertheless, for retail executives, investors, analysts and observers alike, it’s worth thinking through three key drivers that will determine future retail spending overall and by category.

Capacity to Spend

Since mid-March more than 30 million Americans have filed jobless claims and it seems likely that unemployment in the U.S. will soon approach levels not seen since the Great Depression. For those that remain employed, the opportunity for salary increases and/or incentive pay-outs in most sectors will be significantly constrained. This all paints a picture of materially reduced discretionary income for the foreseeable future.

Willingness to Spend

As we have seen already—and will see more fully as retailer’s quarterly earnings reports come out—even if a retailer has a strong online presence, e-commerce is not an adequate substitute for much of retail. So in the immediate term, the dominant question is whether consumers will feel safe going into brick-and-mortar locations. Here we should rely on actual behavior rather than what consumers might say they will do. So time will tell. But it seems likely that it will be a slow return to anything remotely close to pre-pandemic traffic patterns.

If past crises—most notably 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown—are any indication, even consumers with strong capacity to spend often tap their brakes on spending (whether online or offline) in the aftermath of traumatic events. Much of this is an immediate term reaction to more volatility and a fundamental questioning of what is truly necessary to consume in the short-term when it might be more prudent to pay down debts and/or increase savings to mitigate greater perceived risk. In the luxury sector in particular, even if a consumer can afford an item they might be unwilling to part with their cash when it seems insensitive to spend conspicuously in the face of widespread suffering.

Allocation of Spend

While the sheer volume of retail spending for the next quarter (much less the full year) is just about anyone’s guess, it will obviously remain contracted in many sectors. Moreover, and critically for certain retailers, we are likely to see a material shift in how that spending gets allocated.

While we are now largely past the “stock up” and panic-driven buying that drove large spikes in grocery and pharmacy purchases, compared to a year ago far more people will continue eating at home rather than dine out. Higher levels of spending for health and wellness items are likely to wain a bit, but should remain disproportionately high. Apparel and accessory purchases associated with major events like weddings, graduations, vacations and the like will be constrained for an extended period. Similarly, the balance of sale for more casual items will remain unusually high as large numbers continue to work from home.

While off-price retail has been on a tear for years, the second half of 2020 should be particularly robust given the ample supply of high quality distressed merchandise that will be available for sale. The weak macro-economic situation will also drive more trading-down behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, luxury retailers will continue to struggle as a severely depressed oil industry, volatile stock and real estate markets and highly limited international travel take their toll.

Even in an optimistic scenario where a great deal of retail brick & mortar capacity comes back on line sooner rather than later—and where new COVID-19 cases and deaths drop markedly—it seems unlikely that consumers will revert to past shopping patterns very quickly, be that driven out of constrained spending capacity, looming health and economic risks or a fundamental shift in their needs and how they deem something to be essential.

Over the next month or so, governmental policy mandates will largely determine how much of retail capacity will come back on line and what form it will take. However that plays out, there is certainly no guarantee that if you open it consumers will show up.

As with most things in life, it’s important to separate the dreams from the reality.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here

My new book–Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Digital Disruption” is currently the #1 new retail release on Amazon. You can order it here.

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"The Store Operations Council enjoyed every minute of Steve Dennis's presentation on retail's future. He always keeps it real and speaks the language of retail experts."

Cathy Hotka


Cathy Hotka & Associates


"The Store Operations Council enjoyed every minute of Steve Dennis's presentation on retail's future. He always keeps it real and speaks the language of retail experts."

Cathy Hotka


Cathy Hotka & Associates

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