Times Union, March 2, 2020 — Christmas was just days away, but the Macy’s department store at Colonie Center was pleasantly uncrowded. The busiest area seemed to be at the counter where customers could retrieve their online orders.

So it was no surprise last week when Macy’s reported its fourth quarter results. While overall retail sales had tumbled by 19 percent in the three months ending Jan. 30 from year-earlier levels, digital sales were up 21 percent.

When retailers and shopping malls temporarily closed their doors in the early days of the pandemic, consumers flooded online, and merchants became even more dependent on their online sales. Those not yet online quickly established websites or took orders by phone. Customers could choose whether to have their orders shipped or pick them up curbside.

The Retail Council of New York State helped its members adjust, introducing its online portal, RetailNewYork.com, in early April of last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic was intensifying. RetailNewYork.com now has 563 stores on the site, said Melissa O’Connor, president and CEO of the Retail Council.

Meanwhile, major retailers such as Walmart and Target have been growing their own online business, offering a variety of ways to shop.

Bricks and mortar retail can still do many things better than online, whether it’s getting the proper fit of clothing or being able to actually touch the fabric, to tasting a sample of a food item or even getting a customized portion (three slices of prosciutto, please).

And O’Connor sees a continuing role for bricks and mortar.

“If you look at the top e-commerce websites, those companies also invest heavily in their brick and mortar stores,” she said.

Consumers will obtain the goods in the way that works best, whether it’s a bricks-and-mortar Best Buy shipping a product from a store to a customer hundreds of miles away who purchased it online, or someone who used The Fresh Market app to purchase groceries to be picked up in the store’s parking lot on his way home from the office.

Retailers already had been adopting multiple ways to cater to consumers, said O’Connor. The pandemic just accelerated the pace of change.

“Retailers large and small have to operate in a hypercompetitive economy,” she said. “That has not changed.”

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