Fashion on a high as UK online retail powers ahead in March

It had to happen eventually, a report about UK retail that’s upbeat and talking about growth. But of course, it’s not about physical stores. Instead it’s online retail. The IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index reported an 18.9% leap in e-sales last month. And for once, fashion had a good time of it.


Physical stores may have been challenged but their e-tail ops did well last month


Meanwhile, IMRG also said that we might just be entering “a new retail era” where physical stores decline even faster, while Capgemini said retailers who ignore changing consumer behaviour do so at their peril.

The good e-tail news came as the high street reported the steepest year-on-year drop in footfall since 2010 during March. Online retail sales picked up much of the slack, it seems, to turn in the highest year-on-year growth since November 2016.

And March’s results rounded out “a hugely successful first quarter”, which saw average growth perform well above the 2018 forecast (e-sales were up 15.4% vs. expectations of a 9% rise).
 
A number of factors helped drive the month’s online sales – starting with the continued cold weather and ending with the early Easter bank holiday. Far more significant of the two, weekly analysis showed that growth doubled in the final week over Easter – surging from a steady +13% to +27%.
 
While all sectors showed year-on-year growth in March, there were a few standout performances. Clothing saw increases of 17.2%. Perhaps less predictably, Electricals also had a very strong month, reversing a five-year trend of decline to record growth of 21.9%. 
 
Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director of IMRG, said: “It’s possible to read this month’s results as a simple story of online continuing to benefit from the decline of the high street. But it may be that we are seeing an acceleration of this as we’ve moved into 2018. At the same time it could just be a blip – Easter falling in March will likely have pushed up online growth (and, by extension, it may come in far lower in April) plus the weather has at times brought heavy snowfall and prolonged rainfall.”
 
“If the strong growth is sustained into April, it would be tempting to conclude that we may have entered a new retail era – where store portfolios are going to be reduced faster under a far more radical programme of store consolidation than we have seen thus far, with digital transformation going high up [boardroom] agendas and more ‘digital transformation director’ job titles appearing.”

But he said that might not mean devastation for physical retail. “It’s important to remember that shopping centres have generally performed better than high streets recently, so it’s not that physical retail spaces can’t work,” he stressed. “The question is – if retail were to start again entirely from scratch tomorrow, what would a retailer’s physical space look like? Would they be shops in the traditional sense, using all the space to market stock? Would we actually even create high streets again?” 
 
Bhavesh Unadkat, principal consultant in retail customer engagement at Capgemini, added:  “While the comparatively stronger growth of multi-channel retailers this month further supports the weather’s role in driving footfall away from the high streets, it also highlights the potential value and relevance of maintaining some form of physical presence in addition to a digital one. The trick for retailers is to figure out how the two can successfully work in combination, and what role each must play. We’re already seeing the start of this interplay in the trend for ‘showrooming’, but that is just one possible innovation of many.
 
“Regardless of a probable uptick in high street sales as the months warm up, this isn’t a calculation retailers can afford to push to the back of their minds until Autumn. Not only is the British weather far too unreliable for such optimism, but all the signs point to this being part of a much more intrinsic change in consumer behaviour that continues to gather pace. For those retailers who fail to evolve their approach fast enough, the gap in fortunes is only going to widen.”

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