In a year marked by supply-chain shocks, bankruptcies and the occasional confrontations with a mask-less customer, we’re looking on the bright side. Here are the year’s best products, most intriguing people and most exciting trends from the world of retail.
Best Product: Toilet paper
Nobody could keep it in stock. Everyone was clamoring to get their hands on it. That’s right: toilet paper! Emblematic of the panic-buying that swept the nation, the hottest product of the year was toilet paper. It didn’t matter if it was two-ply, was made of bamboo or had Donald Trump’s face on it. Toilet paper was suddenly selling out at stores everywhere, with sales roaring 22% higher, according to Nielsen. Only in 2020.
This company is buying up Amazon’s third-party sellers at a rapid rate, and is inspiring others to do the same. Led by two serial entrepreneurs, the Walpole-Massachusetts-based Thrasio is the largest acquirer of Amazon businesses and now owns the companies that sell 10,000 individual items on Amazon. The company raised $260 million at a $1 billion valuation in July and says that makes it the fastest profitable company in the U.S. to achieve unicorn status.
Disruptive Innovator: Live-stream shopping
It’s already huge in China, and it could be the next big thing in the U.S. Often compared to QVC for the mobile era, live-streamed online sales are being held by brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Levi Strauss and Estee Lauder to show off products, answer questions and take orders. Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are squaring off against startups like Popshop Live (backed by Benchmark) and ShopShops (backed by Forerunner, Union Square Ventures) for dominance. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has projected that live-stream-generated sales will double to $120 billion worldwide in 2021.
Annus Horribilis: American Dream Mall
What is it they say about the best-laid plans? After 15 years of construction, billions in funding, new ownership and a pointed insult from former Governor Chris Christie, who called the building the “ugliest in the state,” the American Dream Mall near MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, finally, partially opened in October 2019. The developers, Triple Five Group, boldly projected that 40 million annual visitors—twice as many as Disneyland draws—would be wowed by the shopping, the dining and over-the-top attractions like an indoor ski slope, a theme park and a mini golf course. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, the idea of spending time in a crowded, indoor mall became about as appealing as drinking spoiled milk. It reopened, partially again, on October 1—with zero restaurants, 25% capacity restrictions and 1.5 miles of water slides to clean twice a day.
Outstanding Firm: Shopify
Shopify has offered small businesses a lifeline during the pandemic, helping them get online and fast. The Canadian e-commerce company has helped set up legions of mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar stores with an online site, handling payments, order fulfillment, inventory management and even marketing. “Our goal is that, because Shopify exists, more entrepreneurs and small businesses will get through this,” founder and CEO Tobi Lutke said on a call with analysts and investors in May.
Forbes Forecast: Retailers increasingly sell—not buy—online ads
Watch out, Google and Facebook. Retailers like Walmart, Target and Best Buy are poised to take a share of the online advertising space. They are increasingly selling ad placement on their sites so that when a shopper searches for, say, vacuums on Walmart.com, they might encounter an advertisement from iRobot.
The Forbes Person Of The Year In Retail: Aurora James
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, 36-year-old fashion designer Aurora James made a bold pitch to retailers: Commit 15% of your shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses as a way of better representing the 15% of the population that is Black. Several major retailers—including Macy’s, Sephora, West Elm, Madewell and Rent the Runway—have since joined the pledge.