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As we prepare to close out 2020, PFSweb, Inc. CEO Mike Willoughby discusses how this dramatic year has transformed retail and how embracing a digital flagship concept can help brands meet new and evolving consumer expectations in this new age of omnichannel commerce.

Many omnichannel brands are still looking at eCommerce as one of many priorities for retail. In reality, it should be the priority. In a post-pandemic landscape, lack of commitment to a digital-first approach forces various sales channels to compete against each other to the detriment of a brand. A battle erupts over investment, inventory, marketing efforts and workforce resources, which leads to significant data silos and low omnichannel revenue output.

The pandemic has driven the shift towards eCommerce, yet its growth has been sustained by ever-increasing consumer expectations. 2020 has proven the need for dynamic eCommerce operations, as evidenced by this festive season, where US shoppers spent on Cyber Monday, setting a record for the largest US internet shopping day ever (1).

The customer experience must be the central tenet for all brands in 2021. The retail changes that occurred in 2020 have made eCommerce the highest and most important expression of your brand. A digital-first approach to retail is now required to create frictionless experiences across channels. More and more, the first (and sometimes only) interaction consumers have with your brand is through the digital space. To create a seamless and synonymous retail experience across all channels, brands must turn their primary focus to the digital space.

Reinventing physical retail

The traditional brick-and-mortar store model is dead. Relying on your main street or high street store to drive the bulk of your retail sales will no longer cut it. Instead, physical retail is being reinvented to play a larger role in a brand’s digital strategy.

The future store will not look like its past counterparts, instead designed with the digital-first shopper in mind. Brick-and-mortar must be re-engineered to serve the new functions and expectations the pandemic has fuelled, including expanded Buy-Online, Pick-Up In-Store (BOPIS) functionality and micro-fulfilment capabilities. Storefronts will need to be lean and agile, emphasising fulfilling online orders and efficient local pick-up and delivery services. Retailers like Best Buy have gotten ahead of this trend with plans to roll out extended curbside pick-up at 16,000 stores and alternative locations (2).

The concept of multi-node or regional fulfilment will become table stakes with brick-and-mortar serving a new function to streamline the last-mile of eCommerce orders. A brand’s entire product line must be available at any given time, in multiple regions. This requires unlocking the challenge of inventory transparency and retooling their OMS and supply chain operations to ensure seamless omnichannel experiences. The flagship store will now be online, as eCommerce will be the first touchpoint consumers make with your brand, with physical locations now focused on streamlining the last mile.

Every brand needs a CXO

Despite all these shifts impacting retail, there is one constant: a clear focus on the customer experience. Thus, in 2021, every brand should prioritise the role of Chief Experience Officer (CXO). This helps to unify all the different business functions and sales channels in perfect harmony, creating one seamless end-user experience. Brands now must map out unique customer journeys at scale for every different type of shopper, including consumers of varying age brackets, demographics, regions and income levels. All require new levels of personalisation that are now possible with the digital-first approach. In 2021, consumers will expect innovations within eCommerce, coupled with the familiarity of brick-and-mortar.

A CXO can drive this change, ensuring consumers are supported on their unique journeys at every digital and physical touchpoint. For example, we will soon see more extensive adoption from both brands and consumers of immersive VR/AR technologies to offer shoppers the ability to “virtually” try on clothes, or conduct a beauty consultation via video. Then, offer seamless online checkout and quick delivery or local-pick-up options.

A CXO combines innovation and operations to make seamless shopping a reality across all channels. This brings together all business functions to deliver great digital experiences, efficient physical delivery, and consistent customer support and communication at each step of the way. An extreme level of personalisation will be the difference-maker for brands to stand out from big-box marketplaces and win over more customers.

The rise of retail tourism

Navigating later into 2021, once the COVID-19 vaccine has hopefully been more widely distributed, we should see a form of resurgence of brick-and-mortar. Consumers will have nostalgia for physical retail experiences of the past, like a day out in London exploring the shops or a spree at the local shopping centre.

Whilst they will look forward to these pre-pandemic activities, they will also subconsciously pull towards the great leaps retail has made in 2020. It is up to brands to strike the balance between nostalgia and innovation to offer shoppers the comforts of old, with new options like BOPIS or contactless checkout. This will usher in the rise of “retailtainment”, as physical shopping becomes more of an activity or novelty compared to eCommerce. Stores will become a blend of micro-distribution centres and entertainment venues.

Keep up with changing consumer expectations

Looking ahead to the New Year, it is clear retail brands still have their work cut out to see sustainable growth from this past year’s eCommerce surge. 2020 served as the catalyst for change, shifting consumer behaviours more in five months than the previous five years. However, the right digital-first roadmap will ensure brands can meet these ever-changing expectations.


As Chief Executive Officer, Mike Willoughby oversees the overarching strategy of PFSweb. He has been instrumental in the acquisition, development, integration and support of the company’s world-class technologies. It was Mike’s vision to diversify PFSweb’s offering by establishing two business units: the Operations Services unit, PFS, and the Professional Services unit, LiveArea.