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May 10, 2022

April online sales suggest UK digital retail boom is over

Online retail sales fell by 12% year-on-year in April while inflation continued to rise and consumers prioritised wallet spend on apparel, with clothing sales up 4.2% against a tough comparative.

By Beth Wright

The findings of the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index, which tracks the online sales performance of over 200 retailers, show online retail sales growth for April fell to -12%, a significant improvement from -25.7% the month before, but nowhere near a return to pre-pandemic levels.

With last month’s results representing the first time in two years the Index was not skewed by pandemic lockdown comparisons, expectations for a return to pre-Covid patterns had been high. However, the results show there was no actual growth in online sales in April – with last month’s performance simply mirroring April 2021’s growth of +12%. This mirroring was also evident in the weekly results, with growth in week four of April 2022, for example, at -10% against +10% for the same week the year prior.

Looking at this more closely, there are signs of the current economic situation exerting an influence on the average basket value (ABV), which reached an all-time high at GBP146 in April, £3 above the previous pandemic record set in August 2021. With rising supply chain costs feeding through into product prices and cost of living increases showing no signs of slowing down, shoppers are taking longer to make purchase decisions and retailers are having to rely more heavily on discounting to stimulate activity – particularly for smaller goods. However, the ABV also indicates that many consumers are still willing to purchase larger ticket items, or are buying in bulk in order to get better value.

At a category level, clothing is an example of a category seeing good post-pandemic sales, recording 4.2% year-on-year growth in April – a solid result against huge growth of 51.4% in April 2021.

“Throughout the pandemic, there was much speculation as to what the ‘new normal’ might be once everything has settled down again. After two years of huge volume increases online, it would seem that growth is now over – this is not just a reflection of the pandemic effectively coming to an end in many people’s minds, the new phase of higher costs and bills is creating very unpredictable patterns of behaviour among shoppers. Many retailers report a sluggish response to activity and erratic spending, and it feels like this is only the start of a tough year for UK shoppers,” Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director, IMRG, says.

Lucy Gibbs, senior manager, retail lead for analytics and AI, Capgemini, adds: “Demand for certain categories became less predictable during the pandemic due to external factors and changes in behaviours and lifestyles. As we start to move on, we are seeing some signs of a return to the norm, however, it is clear that shifting priorities around new cost pressures and economic factors will also influence future demand patterns. If we project forward the pre-pandemic trends we can infer which categories are still overperforming; home and garden and health and beauty are still well ahead of where we would expect them to be despite tracking negative year-on-year growth for this month. Clothing is approximately in line with where we would expect, picking up after losing out in the pandemic.

“As uncertainty continues to reign, this reinforces that retailers and brands will need to remain agile and resilient – listening to customer needs, where consideration will likely now focus on price point, necessity and value, to create a standout experience and drive other factors to maintain loyalty.”

Last month, the Index showed UK online retail sales fell by more than a quarter in March compared to last year but demand for apparel remains strong with womenswear and menswear recording double-digit increases.

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