The most overhyped retail trends of 2021

Here are the bloated buzzwords of the year, according to experts.
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Francis Scialabba

5 min read

In 2021, the retail industry took Covid-era conveniences and tried to make them fit into a post-vaccine world. Fifteen-minute grocery-delivery startups claimed supermarket trips are a thing of the past. Gamified commerce reasoned people only buy things when they’re scrolling TikTok or playing Candy Crush. And fashion houses jumped into the metaverse before consumers could google “What is NFT.”

So, which trends made a mark and which just made noise? To close out 2021, we spoke to a few analysts and insiders and got their opinions on the most bloated buzzwords of the year.

Live dreams

Livestream shopping is still getting its footing in America, but the fad has already made retailers and social media companies alike rethink their e-comm strategies. To name a few: Facebook introduced a live-shopping event series, Saks debuted holiday livestream shopping shows, and Albertsons partnered with a short-form video platform. A slew of live-shopping platforms like Ntwrk and Supergreat, too, have popped up to compete in the space.

But livestream shopping, expected to be an $11 billion industry in the US by the end of 2021, hasn’t yet taken off here like it has in China. There are doubts it actually will.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be where China is with livestream shopping...[Our expectations will] settle in at something a little more reasonable,” eMarketer’s Andrew Lipsman told Retail Brew.

“People have compared livestream shopping to QVC, but QVC works because it’s on TV. With livestream, people have to lean in and really want to engage with it,” he continued. “So the question is, how many people really want to spend a significant amount of time watching these?”

Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst at GlobalData Retail, concurs: “Livestream shopping has become more important...but now that people can go into stores, [it’s] not quite as important. It was a stand-in.”

This brings us to our next overhyped shopping.

Get real about e-comm

Don’t look so shocked! As long as consumers can shop online, they will shop online. But the in-store experience is on the rise, and physical retail is getting its groove back.

“The [e-comm] growth rate has come back down, and store growth is outpacing online growth. The store is still extremely relevant,” Saunders said. (Just look at DTC brands like Warby Parker and Allbirds eyeing brick and mortar.)

  • In 2021, IRL spending will grow at its strongest clip in a decade, per eMarketer.

“This year, a degree of realism crept in about how significant online has become because of the pandemic,” he added.

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“There’s been a lot of discussion about all the growth in e-commerce, but not as much about the profitability and the challenges and some of the massive changes that are going to have to occur for that to be sustainable,” noted Steve Dennis, the founder of SageBerry Consulting and former retail exec.

Extremely Online

In 2021, brands from Clinique to Gucci to Taco Bell to Charmin put out NFTs. Balenciaga and Nike both got into metaverse fashion. But this kind of digital exploration made for many a headline...and not much more.

“The metaverse [and VR] might ultimately account for a slice of shopping, but won’t be the dominant mode," Lipsman reasoned.

“[NFTs] do seem like a solution in search of a meaningful problem,” added Keith Anderson, SVP of strategy and partnerships at Profitero. “The value proposition seems to be converting one of the internet’s primary benefits—the abundance of virtual goods—into artificial scarcity for the sake of economic speculation...I don’t see big potential in retail.”


Retailers continued to put energy into enticing the ethical consumer this year. We saw transparency tools, plant-based bra cups, and even regenerative turkeys.

But, according to our survey with Harris Poll this summer, more than half of respondents (56%) said quick delivery outweighs shopping sustainability.

  • It also showed that people are split on how important it is for retailers to be eco-friendly: 54% said it’s crucial, while 46% didn’t care.

“[The sustainability trend] is overdone in the assumption that every consumer is on the lookout for sustainable products,” Saunders explained. “The truth is, most of the time, it’s way down the batting order of what consumers are looking for.”

Perhaps the bigger issue is brands and retailers overhyping their own sustainability missions and falling short. “When you look at the sustainability claims for some of these brands and’s a lot of fluff,” Lipsman said.

Honorable mentions: Anderson at Profitero also shouted out drones and autonomous delivery vehicles (“long-term potential in certain contexts, but still not anywhere near mainstream”), “Just Walk Out” tech (“likely has future potential, but still not widely deployable the way warehouse automation is being scaled”), AR/VR (“the smartest technologists I’ve spoken to tell me we’re still three to five years from anything like mainstream interest”), and 5G (“I’ll leave it at that”).

With additional reporting by Erin Cabrey.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.