Future Proofing: Montana Retail Trends

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Future Proofing: Montana Retail Trends

What’s Next for Montana Retail Trends in the Wake of COVID-19?

By Connor McMahon

And how can Montana retailers future-proof? Experts have been preaching doom and gloom for brick and motor retail for years. The “Amazon effect,” increased density in urban environments and zoning changes have all been significant challenges to the retail industry. But these challenges pale in comparison to the effect of a pandemic on traditional retail. Where did Montana retail trends find themselves after this hasty change?

After a series of rapid shutdowns in spring 2020, retail concepts that hadn’t kept up with online shopping quickly closed. Many of those closures were permanent. Next, traditional retail concepts like soft goods experienced closures. But some retail concepts are actually thriving in a COVID environment, as are stores that adapted to the changing conditions.

And despite this host of challenges and an ever-evolving retail landscape, brick and mortar retail is here to stay. The impacts of COVID-19 may have thinned the herd, but the businesses left standing have shown that retail isn’t going anywhere.

No Playbook

Regular economic recessions should be expected. In turn, wise retailers prepare to endure an economic downturn. That being said, the COVID-19 pandemic was unlike anything anyone could have expected. Rather than a “bubble” related economic recession, COVID-19 forced a shutdown of consumer traffic.

Unlike a recession, there was no playbook for retailers to reference. With retailers in uncharted territory and long shutdowns ahead, the businesses that adapted the fastest seemed to perform the best.

Product-based retailers who were already on the leading edge of online merchandising and leveraging social media appeared to do the best. Service-based retailers such as spas, gyms and salons faced greater challenges. With everyone stuck at home it was easy for consumers to continue to support their favorite local product-based retail business so long as those businesses had a seamless online purchasing and delivering platform.

Shape Shifting Stores

With Buy Online Pick Up In Store (BOPIS) consumers could still support their favorite bakery, delicatessen, restaurant, brewery, or convenience store without feeling like they were putting themselves at risk.

Service-based retailers would need to work harder to earn consumer trust. Floor plans need to be redrawn to allow for social distancing, physical barriers need to be put up to help prevent virus transmission, and temperature check and hand washing stations installed. Location and outdoor services, classes and dining were critical to many retailer’s success.

Up next, shifting the focus to essential services and the outlook for retail.

Retailers Successfully Weather the COVID-19 Storm – How?

 We covered the immediate, unprecedented effects of COVID-19 on the service- and product-based sector. And we know COVID -19 did not spell trouble for all retailers: essential services such as grocery stores saw large increases in sales. Office supply stores saw a boost with everyone working from a home office. Home improvement and hardware sales increased.

For many people, COVID was the perfect time to finally paint the kitchen or plant the garden they’d planned for years. According to International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) data, garden equipment and home improvement sales increased 6% between Q1 and Q2 2020. To put that in context, restaurant sales dropped over 30% in the same timeframe.

Retailers experiencing booming sales were not without challenges. Supply chain management became a nightmare as shipping and distribution could not keep up with the increased demand. In stores, tensions rose when “anti-maskers” openly refused to adhere to public health guidelines.

Consumer safety, always a primary focus, became an even more substantial challenge in stores that were busier than ever. Now, staff became frontline workers, performing sanitation duties and enforcing mandates – in addition to their usual responsibilities.


With the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out, many are optimistic that retail will rebound at lightning speed as people are anxious to get back to business as usual. However, retailers should continue to be cautious.

It will take time for retailers to earn public trust post vaccine – largely through no fault of their own. According to the Deloitte Global State of the Consumer Tracker, about half of all US consumers are concerned for their physical well-being. An ICSC research report indicated that less than half of US consumers are comfortable returning to hotels, entertainment venues, gyms, movie theaters and concert venues.

Consumer spending remains low as many are still unemployed or facing un-employment. It will likely take years to fully unpack the full shock COVID dealt to retailers. Retailers should look to model after concepts leveraging all the tools at their disposal to maximize sales and earn consumer confidence.

Montana retail trends, while perhaps a bit isolated from significant impacts, should follow suit with national best practices. Learn more with Connor McMahon.

Matt Mellott
Matt Mellott, CCIM/SIOR

Future Proofing: Montana Retail Trends