Jan 23, 2019
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UK e-sales were sluggish in December as consumers tightened purse strings

Jan 23, 2019

Online retail has been the one channel in the UK that has been growing strongly, despite the declining traffic and spend in physical shops. But the latest Capgemini IMRG eRetail Sales Index showed that December growth, at 3.6%, was the lowest for any month ever recorded in the index.

Squeezed budgets meant consumers reined-in their spending last month and even online suffered

That's perhaps unsurprising given that the sluggish Christmas trading period seen in Britain wasn't only about migration to online shopping, but was also characterised by general consumer caution, as well as being dented by the discount frenzy that had happened earlier in the season.

It all meant that overall e-sales growth dropped to 8.4% year-on-year in the second half, well down on the 16% growth seen in the first half. That left 2018 as a whole with an 11.8% year-on-year increase, much lower than many previous years, despite the feelgood boost provided by the royal wedding, the World Cup and the hot summer. And there’s no uptick expected for 2019 with predictions of a 9% rise this year.

Back with December, the report said that “the industry experienced a tough Christmas trading period to end a challenging second half of the year.” 

The poor performance across H2 and December in particular “is evidence of low shopper confidence in the current climate,” the report said. December’s growth rate “was by some distance the lowest seen across the whole of 2018, and continued a declining trend – falling below the final quarter (+6.8%), second half (+8.4%) and 12 month (+11.8%) averages respectively.”

And the figures added further weight to the view that discounting in November is seriously undermining December sales. In fact, online spending was down 15% compared to November, which was an even bigger decline than the 11% drop seen at the same time last year. 

Category results also echoed this poor performance, with gifts plunging 31.1% year-on-year and electricals down by 21.7%, a record low for this product category. The report didn't provide a figure for the fashion category.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at IMRG, said: “The first half of 2018 was actually very strong for online retailers – it resisted and arguably benefitted from the tough climate that impacted trade for store retail. It is only the second half of the year where the suppressed confidence and spend, evident in so many other sectors, has spread to online retail; the macro-economic situation must be exerting pressure here, particularly with Brexit now entering its crunch period in Q1 2019. 

“If there had not been so much uncertainty and shopper confidence had not been so negatively impacted toward the end of the year, it seems a reasonable bet that online retail sales growth could have been much stronger than 11.8% for 2018. If Brexit can be resolved so that a course, whatever that may be, is agreed and pursued, it may help to build shopper confidence again with online likely to be the main beneficiary from a retail perspective.”

And Bhavesh Unadkat, principal consultant in retail customer engagement at Capgemini, added: “A sharp drop in online retail spending in December brings the rollercoaster of a year to a close, with the industry unable to recover performance in the vital festive period following a disappointing November.  

“There is a clear correlation between consumer confidence and consumer spending throughout the year. Conversion rates were actually high in December despite the poor performance, however the lower order value indicates that consumers were tightening the purse strings by taking advantage of promotions rather than purchasing more. This allowed discounters to take the share in the final month of the year. Retailers will need to think carefully on how to manage pricing strategies to protect share of the wallet in potentially quite uncertain times, and the evolution of the peak events will undoubtably be a focus of next year.”

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