2021 Recap – Winners and Surprises

Every year the retail pendulum swings to the favor of some segments and chains, driven by trends that privilege those specific business models, offerings, and approaches. And 2021 was no different.

In this lookback, we break down some of the biggest winners of 2021 and some of the performances that surprised us most.


Retail Overall

While including the wider retail category as a winner verges on cheating in an exercise like this, it’s still a necessary addition. Heading into 2021, there was anything but certainty about the continued centrality of brick and mortar retail. The Retail Apocalypse narrative had been fueled by a 2020 defined by pandemic restrictions and questions about the capability of certain retail segments to recover in the face of digital alternatives and new behaviors that had been given nearly a year to lock in. 

Yet, the last year has proven that physical stores are as central to the future of retail as they have ever been. The resiliency of consumer demand for in-store shopping was put on full display, as were some of the unique attributes that only a brick and mortar experience can provide. The critical role physical retail plays in the discovery process, the impact of stores on marketing and logistics, and a better and deeper understanding of the impact of locations in maximizing omnichannel retail were all put on display in 2021. 

Even the rise of Omicron late in the year only limited what has been a stellar year for physical retail. Does physical retail need to continue changing and evolving? Yes. Has 2021 been a perfect example of how important it still is? Absolutely.


While much of the apparel sector took hits, the luxury space was uniquely positioned for success. Visits and basket sizes increased as intent driven shoppers were motivated by government stimulus checks and added savings without some of their normal channels – like international travel – to spend on.

The increase in visits in October and November also creates a real sense that the trend could continue deep into 2022, especially if some elements of the current environment continue.


It was only supposed to be a short term surge driven by the unique attributes of the pandemic, but the jump in grocery visits has proven to be more long term than initially expected. Driven by the success of traditional, one-stop-shop grocers, the wider supermarket sector saw consistent strength throughout the year. While the sector is unlikely to maintain the same level of growth into 2022, it is becoming increasingly clear that many brands saw their status jump a level in the last year and a half. An increased focus on at-home cooking, continued economic uncertainty, and the success many brands had in driving loyalty during the pandemic all appear to be coming together to drive long term strength for the space. 

And impressively, there are some brands that are still being limited by pandemic behaviors. As ‘normalcy’ continues to return, grocery chains that are more oriented towards prepared foods or city visitors could help drive a secondary boom for the space, driving the growth into the new year.


As the pandemic’s retail effects were initially being felt, there was a fairly wide consensus that off-price retailers were going to feel the pain. Many concluded that a lack of digital offerings combined with the inability to visit a store was going to create a long term deficit. 

Yet, in the end, as soon as visitors could go back to their favorite off-price chain – return they did. From February through November, Burlington averaged 12.5% monthly visit growth compared to 2019, while Ross and T.J. Maxx saw average increases of 5.0% and 5.8%, respectively. These are huge jumps that reflect the powerful brand relationships these chains have created and their ongoing – if not growing – value to core audiences. However, the biggest star of the Off Price landscape in 2021 was home furnishings player HomeGoods. The retailer saw a massive 21.2% average monthly visit increase compared to 2019, largely the result of sitting at the nexus of home improvement and value. 

The success could hold into 2022 as the value orientation of these brands continues to drive growth. Even more, all this success is happening as the ideal off-price digital offering remains hard to define. Should leaders in the space find this mix in the coming year, the growth could be even more significant. 



While the success of malls is now taken as a given, it was hardly something widely expected going into 2021. Yet, rebound malls did, driving such impressive visit rates that several months showed traffic growth compared to 2019. Critically, there is nothing magical about the return. The success is primarily related to decisions top tier mall owners have been investing in for years to optimize and diversify tenant mix, reduce the focus on apparel and enhance the wider experience a mall can provide.

The resulting takeaway is that this trend is anything but a flash in the pan and could drive a more significant boost for top tier malls for years to come.


Yes, Spiderman’s brilliance likely swung the numbers up. But it is hard to look past the impressive recovery for theatre visits. One of the hardest hit activities throughout the pandemic, the pull of the movie theatre has shown that it still resonates among audiences. While this space is clearly more impacted by pandemic waves than others, there is still a surprising potential that a renewed excitement for theatre experiences could be around the corner.


Whether it was blaming the rise of Peloton or the predicted demise of the fitness chain’s continued appeal, there was a real lack of optimism for the outlook for gyms in 2021. However, the sector recovered so strongly that visits already returned to consistent visit growth compared to 2019 by December. Though COVID could put a damper on this trend heading into a critical Q1, it is obvious that fitness chains have retained their draw even as excitement around connected health solutions has grown.

How will these perform in 2022? 

Visit Placer.ai to find out.

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