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May 14, 2020
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UK e-tail surges but weak fashion could have "very difficult period" ahead

Published
May 14, 2020

Online retail sales rose almost 24% last month as non-essential physical stores across the UK stayed closed, a new report showed. But fashion struggled and the figures came with warnings that if fashion demand stays low post-lockdown, many retailers could struggle even more than expected.


UK shoppers went online in large numbers last month, but not to buy fashion



But first the headline figures from the latest IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index. The overall year-on-year rise was 23.8%, which was a massive rebound after March had seen falling sales. In fact, the rebound meant that April’s sales were 28.2% higher than those in March.

The figures, which were based on the sales performance of over 200 retailers, represented a 10-year high.

The gap in performance between retailer type that had been seen in March intensified, with multichannel retailers outstripping their online-only counterparts, rising 35.8% compared to just 8.3% for the pureplays. Pre-coronavirus, in most months, pureplays saw higher increases. 

So the switch suggests that while e-tail specialists are attracting new customers during the lockdown, shoppers aren’t abandoning their favourite physical retailers just because their stores are closed and are turning to their websites instead.

Now that big problem for fashion. The month saw some specific product super-categories surging compared to others, but fashion wasn’t one of them. Clothing sales sank 23.8% year-on-year, demonstrating how uninterested in fashion consumers were last month. With all physical fashion shops shut, it might have been expected that e-sales could have registered at least a tiny rise. But in the event, that 23.8% was even worse than the 23.1% drop that had been recorded in March. And within the April figure, footwear and menswear sales were particularly poor, down 31.1% and 33.5% respectively.

What were consumers buying instead? The unusually hot April weather (combined with lockdown) triggered a huge rise in gardening sales. Building on March’s 94.4% growth, April’s sales surged an unprecedented 288%. Meanwhile, electrical sales saw an almost-as-impressive 102% growth that was likely indicative of remote working requirements and demand for at-home entertainment. Further to their success in February and March, health & beauty sales also continued to soar with growth of 82%.

While Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at IMRG said sales for most categories are “following a very logical pattern” given that physical stores are closed, he said there’s less logic around the fashion sales plunge. And he said that while multichannel retailers in general are seeing the benefit of a switch to online, multichannel clothing retailers were still down 17.5% last month. “The demand just isn’t there at the moment,” he added. “When that demand will return is a big question for clothing retailers. If they reopen stores – and take their staff out of furlough, bringing all the costs back into the business – but their customers don’t return quickly, there could be a very difficult period coming indeed.”

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