Retail Survey Finds Optimism, Increased Responsibilities

shoppers on retail queue covid-19

It seems nearly all workers in retail had their job roles expanded in 2020 as the pandemic forced thousands of stores to close even more rapidly as ecommerce exploded, creating demand in new areas as the industry drastically reset, a new survey found.

Airtable, a software company that lets users build custom apps for workflows, commissioned the survey from Lawless Research which found 93% of respondents were forced to take on additional responsibilities last year.

Despite the difficult year behind, the survey found a good deal of optimism entering 2021, with 65% reporting a positive outlook on the economic picture and thus their prospects. Over half (54%) said they actually increased their headcount in 2020, with just under a quarter (23%) saying they maintained their existing employees.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found the retail sector added 121,000 jobs in December, with nearly half of the growth occurring in general merchandise stores including warehouse clubs and supercenters. Still, overall employment in retail was 411,000 lower than in February, before the pandemic lockdowns began.

More than three quarters of retailers responding to the survey (79%) said they increased their use of digital tools in 2020. This increase use saw some payoff, with 84% saying it made them more productive while working remotely.

Chris Bowman, manager of customer success for Airtable, said the 600 survey respondents ran the gamut from brick-and-mortar to ecommerce, enterprise to SMBs.

“The pandemic forced a lot of legacy retailers to take their digital strategy more seriously, become more focused on that,” Bowman said. “And the rapid pace in which that happened helped them create a digital presence in which to engage with customers more effectively.”

As for the retailers increasing their headcount in 2020, Bowman said there was a push among Airtable’s customers to start bringing typically outsourced functions in house, including positions related to marketing or creative.

“A lot of that was driven by the fact that these companies needed to be nimble and wanted to take ownership of these disciplines, positioning themselves for success into 2021,” he said.

Speaking to the optimistic outlook, Bowman noted Airtable’s customer Lace and Liberty, a seller of wedding dresses, which was hit hard as so many weddings were canceled or postponed in 2020, as an example of pent-up demand being released this year.

“But now that vaccines are rolling out, they’re optimistic about the return of larger gatherings this year, and an influx of opportunities delayed from 2020,” he said. “People are craving shopping in malls again and gathering together. That coupled with more consumers becoming comfortable with digitally engaging almost anywhere and retailers adjusting themselves to it, is why we’re seeing more optimism in the retail space.”