Looking Ahead to 2021 With the SLD Team

At the end of every year, it’s tradition to reflect on the things we’ve loved, hated, and what we’re looking forward to for the coming year. 2020 was obviously pretty unusual, and although 2021 promises to be an improvement, it will also certainly be a year to remember. In this episode, some designers and thinkers from the SLD team look ahead to 2021 and share their thoughts on trends in design, technology, marketing, and culture – the good, the bad, and what’s next.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to the Think Retail. At the end of every year, it’s tradition to reflect on the things we’ve loved, hated, and what we’re looking forward to for the coming year. 2020 was obviously pretty unusual, and although 2021 promises to be an improvement, it will also certainly be a year to remember. Today, I’m talking to some designers and thinkers from the SLD team about trends in design, technology, marketing, and culture – the good, the bad, and what’s next.

Jason Sorbie is our Director of Digital Experience. He joined us during the pandemic, which is a strange way to come on board, but it hasn’t stopped him from making a big impact at SLD. Jason, thanks for being with us today.

Jason: You’re welcome.

Melinda: So, I’m going to start you off with the big question is, you know, 2020 was a really strange year, but there were some interesting innovations that developed as a result of the pandemic. Is there anything that you are hoping is going to stick around?

Jason: Well, I think, like you said in the introduction, I started during the pandemic, so working from home wasn’t a seamless way of starting actually at a new company. And all the tools that have been developed this year, like Teams and Zoom and all that kind of thing, it’s really helped people cope with working long distance. And it’s forced companies to really see that working remotely can be effective. I think people have shown improvements in productivity. There are some lower operational costs obviously. And then I suspect in 2021, we won’t see companies rushing to return to pre-COVID on-site work models as they stood before. I think it’s just sort of a great thing to give that flexibility…you know, it just gives that work-life balance a little bit more balance. So, I think that’s the thing that’ll stick around.

Melinda: I hope so too. You may recognize this next voice. Sebastian Maynard is a Digital Marketing Strategist at SLD and he closes out every episode of Think Retail. And now you get to hear what he has to say.

Hey, Sebastian.

Sebastian: Hello!

Melinda: So 2020, tell us about what you’re hoping will stick around for 2021?

Sebastian: I think one positive trend that’s top of mind for myself right now as well as lots of others is this idea of supporting local businesses. Black Friday just recently happened, lots of people are still doing their holiday shopping, and we’ve really seen this push to support independent retailers, whether through web stores, curbside pickup. And it’s just been cool to see some local shops think of new innovative ways to stay in business and really reach potential customers. And I think the great thing has been it’s felt like a really grassroots initiative. It hasn’t been big marketing campaigns or anything like that. It’s been people promoting their favorite stores on social media or encouraging friends to be aware of where they’re spending their money this season. So I really hope that this idea of kind of conscious shopping is something that continues into 2021 and beyond.

Melinda: Our next guest is Becky Caunce. She is a Graphic Designer at SLD, and if you live in Canada, there’s a very high probability that some of her design work is in your cupboard or your refrigerator. Becky’s package design work includes brands like Quaker, Lay’s potato chips, and Scotties tissues. She was also excited about how small brands were coming together.

Becky: One thing that I saw this year, you know, if there is a silver lining, is that people kind of came together as a community and started focusing more on looking to buy local and supporting local businesses in the places that they live, not just local businesses, but also shifting their focus on remembering that specifically businesses run by black, indigenous and people of color usually have a tougher time of getting started and keeping things going. And so shifting the focus to support businesses like that is really great to see that this year. And, you know, coming from a pandemic, it’s hard to remember to look at the good that comes out of something so negative that has affected basically everyone around the world but that’s been a really great thing to see.

Melinda: What about big brands?

Becky: It’s tough with big brands because I think people fall on two different sides. They either, you know, rally with them or they feel like it’s coming from a place that’s disingenuous. And that can be a big struggle because, you know, for a big brand, it could come from a very honest place where, you know, they do want to support an important cause, that it’s important to them. But when you are a larger brand, you have a lot more eyes on you and those can be very critical.

Melinda: My next guest is Julia Morgan. She’s a Senior Designer on our branded environments team and she’s worked with brands like Cineplex, Playdium, and many of our Chinese clients and was the driving creative force behind our award-winning design for Cineplex VIP experience, and here’s what she thought would stick around for 2021.

Julia: The obvious one is that online shopping is going to continue to surge. I think the pandemic forced everyone to step back and focus on what is essential to them, you know, the same way that we selected 10 people to be in our safe contact bubbles, I think many shoppers are becoming more brand loyal but to fewer brands.

The pandemic also stripped away all the joy of retail therapy. It became a military op mission of like, you know, go in for a specific item, don’t touch anything, get in, get out. So after 10 months now of that ingrained shopping behavior, I think the real challenge facing retailers and designers for 2021 and beyond is going to be how do you coerce shoppers to now put on real pants, leave the comfort and safety of their homes and, you know, the convenience of the online shopping, and instead come back to the mall or the store? That shopping in-store experience is going to have to really be exceptional.

Melinda: I personally think it’s okay to go shopping in sweatpants. I personally may never want to put real pants on again.

So where can designers take things in 2021 to get people out of the house?

Julia: I’m hoping that 2020 will result in a re-birth or renaissance of retail design, really pushing designers, visual merchandisers, marketers, website developers, and retailers to be more innovative and challenge those status quos. It’s our responsibility now to figure out how to delight and connect with customers in new and unexpected ways because we have to really earn a customer’s brand loyalty.

Melinda: What about any trend that you wish would die or a pet peeve that you had that was really prevalent in 2020?

Julia: Yes. I really hope that the generic selfie wall disappears. That whole Instagram, it’s that aesthetic where it’s like the Pepto-Bismol pink or the rainbow mural wall with a cutesy inspirational quote, it just feels very staged and a half-hearted attempt to connect with Millennials or Gen Z, to draw them into a store. And I think Gen Z especially is more sophisticated and clever than they get credit for. They see right through that. Brands need to be authentic, which I think goes back to that idea of focusing on the essentials and things or causes that matter. So those superficial selfie walls I think are just…have just become the corny dad jokes of retail.

Melinda: Sebastian, what about you? What would you get rid of in 2021, if you could wave a magic wand?

Sebastian: I don’t actually anticipate this going away, but a pet peeve of mine that seems to have become even more common recently is when brands, and I don’t want to say big brands, but it does feel like the case a lot, kind of hop on viral social media trends or campaigns. You know, every week there’s a new meme or a viral video that social media users seem to have a lot of fun with. And then inevitably brands start chiming in and trying to replicate it, and it honestly just feels like parents crashing a party. They’re trying to be cool, but it just really comes off as inauthentic and trying too hard. So, if brands could kind of stay in their lane a little bit more, I think everyone would appreciate it.

Melinda: That’s a good one. I definitely agree. I mean, I am a parent and it’s like when you try to use slang when you’re a parent and they just roll their eyes at you.

Sebastian: Exactly, exactly. You’ve got to read the room.

Melinda: Totally. Jason, what do you think we could safely get rid of in 2021?

Jason: One of my pet peeves, especially with COVID and all the germaphobes out there would agree with me, the contactless payment that isn’t really contactless. You know, you have this amazing experience at checkout, and then they ask you to tap a button to enter or sign your name using your finger on a tablet, which is not really contactless. So, I think there’s going to be some developments, I think with user experience and everything that really needs to work out this part of it. I think people are really hesitant to touch things and I think that’s not going to go away anytime soon. And poorly designed self-checkouts, there’s a few stores that I have been to where the self-checkout is just not user friendly. It’s often confusing and it’s not worth the time to do it. But I’ve had amazing experiences with some updated self-checkouts and I think that’s the wave of the future, just making them a little more user-friendly.

Melinda: Yeah. They’re definitely not all created equal, that’s for sure.

Jason: No. And I can just imagine my mother, that’s almost 80, going up to try to use one of these and she’d be totally confused because I’m confused and I’m a youngster…relatively.

Melinda: I hope we can all agree that the selfie wall has run its course and, yes, please, better self-checkouts. I would add better curbside pickup. I actually really like curbside pickup and I’m hoping that brands think about continuing this as an alternative to delivery in the future, but with an improved experience. Okay. For my next question, I’m going to start with Becky. What trends do you think we’ll see emerge in 2021? Good, bad, what predictions do you have?

Becky: The pandemic has, I guess, brought this trend to the forefront because people are stuck in their homes and re-evaluating what’s around them. So, this trend actually started this year, but I think it’s going to continue to blow up, and that is both houseplants and home decor with a focus on houseplants. It’s been pretty crazy watching the amount of people just start to bring kind of the outdoors in and, you know, as somebody who’s been collecting houseplants for years now, watching the market change because of that, plants that used to be 10 bucks are now going for $50. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s been a great eye-opener for how the open market works when something gets popular. Even though that started in 2020, I think it’s going to really blow up next year, especially into the spring as even more people get into the trend.

Melinda: Absolutely. And I think there’s a bit of a blurring between indoor-outdoor. You know, I found myself working outside in my backyard a lot during the summer and the spring months when it was nice outside. So wherever possible people are wanting to, I think, change that boundary a little bit in their own spaces.

Becky: Yes, it’s almost like going back to nature in a way. It really is bringing the outdoors in. And there’s a sense of comfort that people get, especially in urban settings like Toronto. And I think that’s why it’s really blown up here because we don’t have the outdoor space that people in rural settings have. So, I think that’s helped a lot of people stuck in the city, stuck in their condos during a pandemic, you know, feel a little bit more connected to nature again. And as we continue to be, I’m sure, locked down for a little bit, I thinkthat trend is going to explode even more than what we’ve seen so far.

Melinda: Jason, what trends do you think brands should pay attention to in 2021?

Jason: Right. I think with a lot of people being able to homeschool and work from home, I think websites are really enjoying a renaissance. The website is back. You know, before people would just design mobile sites only, and it would start from mobile site, but I think a lot of people because they are working on their laptops or they are working on their computers, websites are really becoming the go-to place. And the website experience will be the driver to customer loyalty. Give it some love in the new year. I think a lot of people let their websites just coast forever and as long as their mobile experience was on point, the website was just going, but I think a lot of people are going back to the websites.

Another one is social media, you know, organizations, because people are spending so much time on their screens, I know every time I get my screen time update on Sunday morning from my phone, I get a little panicked, up 35 percent this week. So, people are spending a lot more time on their phones and I think social media really needs to be refreshed more frequently because people are checking their Instagrams and everything else, their feeds more frequently because they have a lot more time at home.

And then the third one, I think it’s been a trend for a few years now, but I think it’s even going to pick up more is video marketing. It’s one of the most important marketing trends today and likely for like 5-10 years. If your site includes videos, I think it says it’s 50 times more likely to drive organic search results compared to just text, so you really need to start adding some of those videos to your website. People find them more compelling.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely.

Jason: And that can be watched on every device, you know, that could be watched on your phone or your laptop. And I think you used to have all these longforms that people used to have to read through, it’s not engaging. Videos are engaging.

Melinda: Julia, anything interesting on the horizon?

Julia: You know, the importance of artificial intelligence and algorithms becoming more important because of online shopping. For instance, have you heard of this thing called The Yes, this app?

Melinda: No.

Julia: The Yes is like Tinder, but for fashion, so they send you outfits, and you swipe right if you like it or left if you don’t. So, it’s learning your personal fashion tastes, and then it starts sending you, “buy this from this brand” or “this from this brand.” And so instead of those influencers telling you what to shop for, you know, that whole behind the scenes algorithm of the computer science is going to become more and more important, I think, in terms of driving our purchasing behaviors.

Melinda: That’s really interesting. Sebastian, is there any sort of overarching theme that you think we’re going to see emerge in 2021?

Sebastian: I think a big word for 2021 will be accessibility. Because there’s a lot of different meanings that this can have, especially for brands. It could refer to a store design and how brands are implementing social distancing or wayfinding measures. It could refer to how customers find information about a brand or how they make their purchases now, track a package, make a return. So just being accessible and out there for your customers is one way.

Also, how accessible is your company for potential employees? What are your hiring practices? What does your corporate structure look like? Even if you think that you’re being progressive and accessible, things like unpaid internships are still kind of a barrier for a lot of people. So thinking about how you as an employer or a potential employer can be accessible for people that are trying to join your company is going to hold a lot of weight as well.

And then keeping on this theme of accessibility, digital marketing here in Ontario, come January 1st, all websites are going to have to meet a new threshold of accessibility as part of the AODA. And I expect rules like this to be implemented by other governments as well, so just thinking about your website.

Lastly, with voice-activated assistants becoming increasingly popular, thinking about how accessible you are to search engines, as well as voice assistants is going to be key for getting your website, your webpages, and your products out in front of people.

So I think just this idea of accessibility, it can check off a lot of boxes and is something that we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the new year.

Melinda: Okay. Jason, what is it that you are most looking forward to in the new year?

Jason: Well, of course, an effective vaccine would be amazing, and just traveling again and meeting people. As I said before, I started at SLD and I’ve not met any of the clients face-to-face yet. We’ve had great working relationships on cameras, on our computers, and everything, but it would be great to actually meet and be in a boardroom and really do a brainstorm together with people again. You sort of miss that energy. And just traveling, I think it’d be fun to be getting on a plane without having to worry so much. I don’t know if that’s going to be 2021 or 2022, but I’m looking forward to this running its course, I hope.

Melinda: I also find myself looking forward to the small things like just being at the office and having a chat with people or riding my bike to work in the mornings.

Sebastian, can you close us out with a final word on what you’re looking forward to?

Sebastian: I think, you know, myself and probably a lot of other people felt like 2021 was this light at the end of the tunnel. We’d get through 2020 and come the new year everything would kind of be better. Obviously, that doesn’t seem realistic. Maybe if everyone’s been extra good and asks Santa nicely, there’s still a bit of hope, but I think 2021, it will really be about being able to adapt and handling the unknown and the unforeseen. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing how brands do adapt to this unknown reality and the unknown of what the next 12 months actually holds.

You know, the cat really can’t go back into the bag now that it’s out, and I think a lot of the trends that we’ve discussed today and we’ve looked at throughout the year and, you know, we’ll continue to look at, they’re not going anywhere. So, it’s really a question of how brands do find ways to engage with customers, provide products and services that are relevant and honestly are worth supporting because I think that’s going to be the key for everyone is just making sure that whatever it is you’re putting out there, it’s finding the right audience and it’s resonating with them.

Melinda: As this podcast goes live, we’re at the end of 2020 and it has probably been the most challenging year many of our listeners have had to deal with professionally speaking. It’s been a very tough year for retailers, whether because increased demand meant your supply chain and employees were under stress, or whether rolling lockdowns have meant you’re closing stores, or if it’s just been a new situation every 24 hours and you’ve been awake many nights trying to figure it all out.

To all of you who have rolled up your sleeves, supported your staff, supported your customers, your local communities, your partners, frontline workers, and social causes, we wish you a very happy new year. May 2021 bring us momentum forward, health, safety, and greater prosperity. Thank you to everyone for your contributions, from the grocery cashiers who showed up every day during that early toilet paper rush, to the big brands who donated PPE, restaurants who fed frontline workers, and to everyone who tried to make 2020 a little more bearable, may 2021 be kind to all of us. Thanks for listening.


Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email