Online retail has long been the sturdiest part of a sector struggling to navigate changing consumer appetites.
That changed this month when etail darling Asos issued a profit warning. The company experienced ”significant deterioration” in the important trading month of November and said “conditions remain challenging”.
Are Asos’ latest results just a poor month of trading or a sign of something more sinister? Far from clarifying the situation, the latest online retail figures have yielded diverse, sometimes contradictory, sets of results.
According to the latest IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index, November online sales growth hit a seven-year low, increasing by just 8.1% year on year. Some fear this is indicative of a wider a trend: that online trading – once indefatigable – is beginning to tire.
“Driven by what is clearly a shift to online, November was a better-than-expected month for the UK retail sector”
Ian Geddes, Deloitte
A report released this week by the Office for National Statistics, however, says that in November, online sales as a proportion of all retailing exceeded 20% for the first time.
Deloitte’s head of retail Ian Geddes says of the results: “Driven by what is clearly a shift to online, November was a better-than-expected month for the UK retail sector… a digital milestone has been met for UK retail.”
This contradictory data is reflected in the results of online retail competitors.
Shortly after Asos issued its profit warning, rival Boohoo published an announcement declaring: “Boohoo… is pleased to confirm that the group’s trading performance remains strong, with record Black Friday sales across the group, and continues to trade comfortably in line with market expectations.”
How can retailers make sense of these discrepancies? Have online sales begun to plateau, or will they remain on an upward trajectory?
Chief executive of Retail Economics Richard Lim has confidence in online retail, saying: “Online is still going to be the channel of growth for retailers and that won’t change.”
Lim predicts that we will see radical shifts in our internet shopping experience in the coming years, however.
He says: “I think there’s still a lot of room for growth. The main barriers to online retail are the cost of delivery and the success of first-time delivery. But as we progress I would argue that tech will solve those problems. [Technological developments] could be fundamental levers in accelerating online retail growth.”
IMRG strategy and insight director Andy Mulcahy is also optimistic. When asked if online retail growth has begun to plateau, he says: “No, I wouldn’t have thought so. The first half of the year saw very strong online sales.”
Mulcahy attributes November’s poor sales growth to pervasive discounting, which he describes as a “contagion which spreads across everybody”.
“I would suggest that in January 2019 there will be discounting but when we get into February, March and April, we will probably see it ease off. I think the prospects for online retail are good.”
“My hunch is that there is more migration from physical to online to come”
Suzy Ross, Accenture Strategy
Accenture Strategy senior adviser for retail Suzy Ross also emphasises the dangers of online price cuts.
“Many retailers have become over-reliant on promotions, which may in the short term prop up sales but in the long term train customers to wait for discounts,” she explains.
Ross suggests that a change of approach is required: “Retailers need to start fixating on their loyal high-value customers and on not losing those customers.”
She remains positive about the future of ecommerce, however: “My hunch is that there is more migration from physical to online to come.”
November was a punishing month for many retailers and online players have not been immune. Nevertheless, commentators on the sector are optimistic. Etailers will continue to enjoy healthy sales growth and high customer numbers, they say.
Although the November slowdown is revealing, it does not portend disaster.