Online sales flat leading into coronavirus crisis hitting UK, IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index shows

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Following a very slow start to the year, the UK’s string of winter storms failed to stimulate online demand as online sales growth for the month limped in at -0.4% Year-on-Year (YoY). That’s according to the latest IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index, which tracks the online sales performance of over 200 retailers. Continuing January’s equally weak performance (-0.4%), the result falls well below the 3, 6 and 12-month rolling averages of +4.0%, +7.5% and +5.3%.

Breaking down the results further, the picture was particularly bleak for multichannel retailers whose sales growth was down -8.2% versus their online only counterparts (+12.5%). These polarised figures point to an emerging trend in the diverging fortunes of the two different retailer types, which could now be hugely exacerbated by the Coronavirus crisis.

Delving into the categories, the wet weather certainly took its toll on gardening sales, which were down -22% from last year’s unexpectedly warm February. Meanwhile footwear was the second lowest performing category, with sales of -7.6%.

On the slightly brighter side, clothing continued to be one of the best performers of the year to date, though its February growth of +13.9% is less impressive when viewed against very weak growth last year (+0.9%). Despite only achieving flat growth of -0.7%, electricals sales also represented a significant improvement on recent trends, with this month’s figure well above the -14.0% recorded last February.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director, IMRG: “Over the past few years, retail has become an industry beset with problems – even before the Coronavirus crisis hit the UK, which has massively shifted shopper behaviour. We were already seeing a division opening up between the growth fortunes of multichannel and online-only retailers, and this might be a trend that becomes increasingly profound given the current climate.

“We can see this in groceries – the move over to purchasing them online has been steady but limited by capacity to fulfil. Now that stockpiling has driven demand to unprecedented levels, we may see a situation where shopper behaviour shifts over to that as a preferred channel very rapidly. Equally for general merchandise – with so little clarity over how long the current crisis will go on, people might have little choice but to switch all purchasing online.”

Lucy Gibbs, managing consultant – Retail Insight, Capgemini: “February saw the UK hit by one storm after another, however this did little to increase online spending as retailers continue to face a multitude of challenging factors and like-for-like performance dropped towards the end of the month amid rising attention on Coronavirus. 

Although the UK’s online market is well established, we can already see supermarkets struggling to satisfy peaks in demand. We can expect online sales in other categories to grow too, especially for products that can help self-isolated customers such as home and garden categories. The months ahead could prove an opportunity for online to help serve customer needs, and potentially part of a larger shift to digital.”