Asos and Boohoo – two fast fashion etail giants who have stormed through the pandemic, picking up struggling competitors as they go. But, in five years’ time, who will be the bigger powerhouse?
- Asos’ revenues stand at more than double that of Boohoo’s currently, but the reality is much more nuanced
- While Asos is comfortable with its third-party business, Boohoo will have to work hard to pull off the Debenhams relaunch
- US sales for both companies stand “neck in neck”, meaning it’s all to play for in that market
Beyond the garments themselves, however, the two companies’ rivalry has been brought to new heights over the course of the pandemic as more spending switched online, creating competition for market share both in the UK and abroad.
Moreover, the downfall of high street fashion stalwarts, including Arcadia’s stable of brands – Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Wallis – as well as Debenhams, Oasis and Warehouse, created a battleground for acquisitions.
As Asos and Boohoo both seek to build up their newly acquired brands, Retail Week explores where each retailer stands in terms of financial performance, product mix, customer base and strategy – and, ultimately, who comes out on top.
Sales and profits
At first glance, Asos’ revenues stand at more than double that of Boohoo’s, indicating that the former is winning on the financial front, but the reality is much more nuanced.
After a disappointing year in which discounting failed to boost sales, Asos issued a profit warning in 2019, but chief executive Nick Beighton has since turned things around.
The fashion etailer has recorded a year-on-year increase in revenues of just under 20% for the past two years and, with soaring sales during the pandemic, is set to continue on the growth trajectory as it seeks new markets.
Boohoo has also experienced a volatile journey – peaking at almost 100% growth in 2017/18 – but has now settled on a yearly growth rate of around 40%.
In this respect, Boohoo is growing at a faster rate than Asos, although both have a steady incline and are continuing to succeed.
In profits, Asos is also in the lead, beating Boohoo’s operating profit and pre-tax profit by between £20m and £30m.
However, Boohoo is gaining ground fast and Asos’ issues in 2019 slowed their profit growth.
Boohoo also has a stronger margin on its items, around 3% more than Asos, meaning it’s all to play for as the battle heats up.
Retail Week data analyst Eleanor Smith thinks that the creation of Boohoo’s Debenhams online marketplace could take its revenue past the £2bn mark during FY2021 and is likely to keep its margins well ahead of Asos.
“Boohoo has enjoyed a much higher rate of growth, which is not expected to let up,” she says.
”However, Asos has made a tremendous recovery since its calamity in FY2019, which was attributed to operational disruptions in its international business.
”The online fashion behemoth has since ploughed investment into products, pricing and marketing, which – along with stronger-than-anticipated consumer demand – sees it affirming strong pre-tax profit expectations for FY2021.”
Customer base and growth ambitions
In terms of customer acquisition, both brands have also been steadily bringing new customers on board as they extend their reach.
With an average order value of around £70, Asos far outstrips Boohoo, which has an average order value of just over £40.
But it must be remembered that Boohoo’s various brands represent both ends of the price spectrum. Its eponymous brand sells items for as little as £1, whereas its recent acquisitions such as Karen Millen and Coast will sell higher-end garments for over £100, creating an imbalance average.
Asos also has a slightly higher conversion rate, with elements such as free next-day delivery, premier delivery and simple returns playing a part.
Peel Hunt analyst John Stevenson says: “Asos has always locked on to the idea of being the number-one destination for fashion-conscious 20-somethings. Its focus is absolutely on ‘This is our customer and this is what we achieve’.”
In this sense, Stevenson says Asos seeks to own the customer journey and outpace its competitors with customer experience features such as late cut-off points for next-day delivery or the best app.
“What Boohoo has been really successful at is effectively acting as a brand incubator, because they’ve got this fabulous centralised model to bring brands on board”
John Stevenson, Peel Hunt
Boohoo on the other hand, Stevenson says, wishes to be the “Inditex of online”, building up a stable of brands to cover a range of customers.
“Up till now, Boohoo has been focused very much on young fashion in terms of developing its own brands. If you look at Nasty Gal, MissPap or PrettyLittleThing – a lot of the initial Boohoo brands – that Venn diagram is pretty tight and they’re not a vastly different customer,” he says.
“What Boohoo has been really, really successful at is effectively acting as a brand incubator, because they’ve got this fabulous centralised model to bring brands on board.”
Boohoo’s latest acquisitions have taken it away from its core 16- to 24-year-old audience and expanded it exponentially.
Boohoo co-founder Carol Kane says: “We’ve gone from our 2014 IPO, where we focused on the 16- to 24-year-old market, and we’ve taken that into the middle market and the premium market, covering off ages from our teeny 16-year-olds to our 50-plus consumers.
“The old Boohoo group has changed to the new Boohoo group, with an ambition to clothe everybody around the world.”
While Boohoo’s active customer base still stands at roughly 10 million below that of Asos, its new acquisitions have yet to reach maturity, with Boohoo’s relaunch of each of them in theory set to bring in a wealth of new customers.
Boohoo’s aim, therefore, is to access a target female customer throughout her changing lifestyles as she goes from school to university to the working world and beyond.
Asos chief executive Nick Beighton, on the other hand, uses the tagline “the fashion-loving 20-something” for his target shopper.
Despite the limitations of this demographic focus, Asos has continued to grow its active customer base by around 3 million each year for the past five years.
While the two businesses will have some crossover – Boohoo brand Nasty Gal typically targets a slightly older 20-something shopper than its counterparts Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing – Asos has carved out more of a niche, which enables it to really hone in on what its customer wants.
GlobalData analyst Emily Salter believes that Boohoo’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to its new acquisitions could in fact be detrimental to its progress for new demographics.
She gives the example of Karen Millen, which Boohoo bought out of administration in 2019.
“Karen Millen is a bit tricky because, even in the UK, I don’t think they’ve quite got the proposition right yet,” she says.
“Because they are a quite premium, more occasionwear-focused brand, I think stores are always going to be quite important.
“In the UK, these brands still hold a certain reputation for quality and those higher-end products among consumers, which has been somewhat damaged by Boohoo, and building that same reputation in the US without the physical presence will be harder.”
Salter posits that Boohoo has some work to do to get closer to each target customer for Karen Millen, Oasis, Coast, Warehouse and Debenhams if they’re going to turn them into successes.
“All of the websites have the same layout. They’re all discounting. The social media presence is very important, but Boohoo shoppers do not behave on social media in the same way as Karen Millen shoppers,” she continues.
“It doesn’t translate and the people who used to shop at Karen Millen also don’t resonate with that constant discounting in the same way as Boohoo’s traditional shoppers, so replications of the same strategy don’t work.”
Debenhams is another element of Boohoo’s new stable that will prove an interesting prospect if it can pull it off.
Salter points to increased competition in online marketplaces over the last five years, as well as fellow fashion retailers ranging from Asos to Next and M&S growing their stables of third-party brands.
She says that Boohoo faces an uphill battle in making sure Debenhams has “a differentiated proposition” that compels its existing customers to go online, as well as luring new customers.
Stevenson is equally sceptical about how Debenhams will work as a marketplace in comparison to Asos’ proposition.
“The challenge is going to be: if you look at Asos, it doesn’t only own the customer, but also effectively acts as a wholesaler – they own that whole journey,” he says.
“They have control, they know what is in stock and they can get it to the customer and deliver a really good service proposition.
“If you look at what Boohoo is going to do with third-party brands on the platform, it is not going to act as a warehouse distribution unit like Next or Asos, so these are going to be third-party brands who are going to fulfil orders themselves.
“You could be getting multiple packages with multiple delivery times, and if you want to make a return how’s that going to work? None of this is insurmountable, but there are clearly challenges,” he concludes.
While Boohoo may have some work to do on bringing its newer brands and its third-party ambitions to fruition, Asos has established its prowess in the marketplace world and its own-label brands have been going from strength to strength.
Collusion, Asos Design and Asos 4505 have all continued to grow each year since launch. Collusion, in particular, broke into the top three womenswear brands on Asos’ platform in 2020, with sales up 93% year on year.
“There was this style of cheaper fast fashion that was absolutely nailing it, which Asos could clearly see through its website, and that’s why Collusion was launched. And it’s been hugely successful”
John Stevenson, Peel Hunt
Asos also launched its lower-priced AsYou range in 2020, which the retailer said saw great momentum last year and is set to grow as hospitality and events start up again.
“If we step back, there was this style of cheaper fast fashion that was absolutely nailing it, which Asos could clearly see through its website, and that’s why Collusion was launched. And, of course, it’s been hugely successful,” Stevenson says.
Asos’ own brands are therefore clearly important to it, not only on a margin level, but also to ensure it covers every category 20-somethings wish to buy. This is also why its Face + Body range has become an increasingly important part of the Asos experience.
Both companies are therefore focusing on their own-brand portfolios over the next few years. While Asos is comfortable with its third-party business, Boohoo will have to work hard to pull off the Debenhams relaunch.
International is also a top priority for both businesses, with a particular focus on the US and European markets.
For Asos, the US shopper has been difficult to win over, but its latest acquisitions of Topshop and Topman may give it a much-needed boost to gain more than 13% of Asos’s overall revenue share, where it has languished in recent years.
“If you look at Asos’ US growth last year, it is reflective of the fact that there’s nowhere to go – no festivals, no occasions, all the stuff that Asos thrives on,” explains Stevenson.
“As global lockdown restrictions ease, you’ll see Asos push hard. International is a huge part of its strategy and, from a market share perspective, it’s barely resonating in the US and Europe.”
Boohoo, on the other hand, has had greater success with its US share of revenues growing from 13% to 24% over the past five years.
“A lot of PrettyLittleThing’s collaborations are now more focused on US influencers, which has obviously really helped drive its brand awareness”
Emily Salter, GlobalData
PrettyLittleThing has been particularly popular in the US, which Salter says has been aided by the introduction of a dedicated American head office for the brand, which opened last year.
“A lot of its collaborations are now more focused on US influencers, which has obviously really helped drive its brand awareness,” she says, adding that PrettyLittleThing is now closer to its audience in a way that Asos isn’t.
On a revenue level, however, US sales for both companies stand “neck in neck”, according to Stevenson, meaning it’s all to play for if Asos can use Topshop and Boohoo can launch Karen Millen and its counterparts in that market.
Asos and Boohoo have also both identified Europe as a big opportunity going forward, with both brands seeking to grow their market share on the other side of the channel.
It’s evident that the two companies have a lot on their plate in terms of the M&A activity they undertook in the past year.
For Asos, Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge were an opportunistic purchase of brands that clearly already resonated with its current customer. The etailer has laid out big plans to build and expand on what these brands do best.
With jeans a key bestseller for Topshop and Topman, Asos launched a denim campaign soon after acquisition, while for Miss Selfridge, Asos plans to build on its youthful, fun patterns and day dresses.
For all three brands, Asos has also announced plans to grow the sizing available, introducing tall, petite and curve ranges where appropriate.
Asos is also rumoured to be interested in purchasing a beauty platform - the retailer is understood to be one of the bidders in the running for both Feel Unique and Cult Beauty.
As Face + Body has been a key bestseller for the group over the past year, with sales up 114% year-on-year in the first half, an acquisition like this would again make sense to boost Asos’ portfolio with what it already knows its customer loves.
Boohoo is equally opportunistic and chief executive John Lyttle has been vocal about the potential for more acquisitions should the right opportunity present itself.
“They haven’t ruled out acquiring any more brands, but I do think they have a lot on their plate at the moment, making the Arcadia brands work. And even some of the older acquisitions I still wouldn’t say are finished,” Salter says.
“I can’t see them not acquiring a brand in the next year or so, but whether that will be the right choice is another question – I think they should make a success out of the brands they already have before acquiring more.”
There is no doubt that both retailers’ sales will continue to soar, especially as the switch to online cements itself in consumer shopping habits post-pandemic.
Stevenson posits that both retailers could indeed grow together – until last year, Boohoo brands were found on Asos and once Boohoo’s supply chain issues are rectified, they could be re-added – which could be an opportunity for both parties.
Asos’ potential lies in its own-brand labels and international ambitions, both of which can easily be built on in a post-pandemic world, whereas Boohoo has a host of new brands to bring on board and turn around.
While on paper, Asos is the bigger retailer in terms of revenues right now, Boohoo has a lot more on its plate that, should it succeed, could turn the tables in its favour.
A lot of this hinges on Debenhams and whether Boohoo can establish a third-party marketplace to rival Asos, albeit for a different target market – which, combined with its stable of younger brands, could overtake its competitors from a customer perspective.
Asos’ acquisitions were a safe bet, which will only aid it on its path to grow, but with Boohoo’s big risks there could be even bigger rewards. Asos is top for now, but could lose its crown if Boohoo’s efforts pay off.
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