State of Retail

The retail industry has been undergoing an enormous transformation, especially during the pandemic as it accelerated digital offerings and adapted quickly to new customer needs. What is the future of retail in a post-pandemic world and beyond?

The retail industry is growing

Retail sales have grown by almost 4% annually since 2010.

As we emerge from the global pandemic, retail is growing at levels not seen in over 15 years. Retail sales grew an estimated 6.7% in 2020, well above the five-year average of 4.4%. 

NRF forecasts that sales will grow between 10.5% and 13.5% to more than $4.44 trillion in 2021.

store front

Store numbers continue to grow

The total number of retail establishments across the United States has increased even as ecommerce has grown by over 70% over the past three years. Physical locations remain pivotal, especially now that a significant proportion of ecommerce orders are fulfilled by stores.

Sign for online grocery pickup in a store
All shopping is retail

Online, in-store and everything in between

Successful retailers are reimagining their offerings to meet consumers both online and in-store, creating an integrated experience that blends channels. Retailers are driving this transformation through innovative thinking and smart investments that improve the customer experience regardless of how they want to shop.

  • Ecommerce is not separate from retail … it’s all retail
    • 9 of the top 10 ecommerce websites are run by retailers that also operate bricks-and-mortar stores
How much shopping is ecommerce?

Ecommerce levels peaked in April 2020 at almost 19% of retail sales. Since then, levels have dropped to 15% — higher than pre-pandemic but lower than the highest levels in early 2020.


Ecommerce isn’t the only driver of growth: By the end of 2020, ecommerce’s share of total retail sales had grown by just 3 percentage points over the prior year. Industry-wide, online sales still only account for 10% of all retail sales. Digital marketplaces are helping the industry grow, particularly small and medium sized retailers.

The role of stores is evolving and still critical to consumer experience

80% of all shopping still happens in stores.

Retail store counts continue to grow with the industry and the broader economy, despite the growing share of ecommerce. In fact, the role of the store is evolving to support buying across all channels. 

  • NRF surveys show that over 50% of retailers currently offer, or plan to offer, ship-from-store capabilities
  • Almost two-thirds of retailers currently offer or plan to offer buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS)
  • Ecommerce and in-store retail complement each other and often create a “halo effect” — ICSC finds opening a new store increases traffic to that retailer’s website by an average of 37% and drives up share of web traffic within that market by 27%

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of Q3 2020, there were 1,045,422 retail establishments in the United States, up 4,801 versus Q2 2020, representing the highest Q3 establishment count in the last decade.

The State of Retail and the Consumer

NRF’s State of Retail and the Consumer virtual event on June 9, 2021, explored shopping trends that are shifting retail business operations. Industry experts including NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay, NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz, retail CEOs from major brands and market researchers discussed how an increasingly divided set of consumer values are driving retailers to align their businesses, products and services to appeal to post-pandemic shoppers.

shopping 2021
Trends shaping the future of retail

The pandemic accelerated many existing trends in the retail industry with respect to fulfillment and logistics, purchasing behavior and payments, and shoppable media. When COVID-19 struck, retailers were able to leverage years’ worth of investments to deliver safe, convenient shopping experiences to their employees and customers in the face of unprecedented demand and disruption.

Experts are re-evaluating how to measure success.

As the evolution of retail continues, many experts are questioning the value of long-standing metrics like same-store sales and wondering how the new retail industry can be measured more accurately.

Data on retail employment needs to be modernized.

Retail is the largest private-sector employer in the country, supporting 42 million jobs overall — roughly one-quarter of the U.S. workforce. But Bureau of Labor and Statistics jobs numbers are very outdated and need to be re-thought. BLS numbers don’t count retail jobs outside of stores, such as those in company headquarters, warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers, call centers and more.

A woman shops in grocery store

More stories and insights on retail’s transformation and trends

Lowe’s drives successful growth home
NRF 2022: CEO Marvin Ellison on accelerating business transformation.
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Chewy CEO Sumit Singh on innovation as a motivator for success
NRF 2022: How Chewy balances growth and a customer-centric culture.
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Consumers want it all
As retailers and brands look to the future, they must focus on aligning offerings with these new consumer expectations.
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