Feb 14, 2023
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As online sale growth falters, fashion outshines all categories

Feb 14, 2023

The pandemic-linked boom in online sales is well and truly over with tepid growth at best, a forecast for sales to decline this year, but good news for the fashion sector with clothing ahead of the total online market.


Clothing had lagged during the pandemic boom but against a more ‘normal’ backdrop, it’s outperforming.

That’s all according to new analysis from specialist IMRG. It said on Tuesday that “for all the tumult of the past few years, online sales have actually grown by a similar amount that might have been expected if there was no pandemic, which drove huge volumes of orders online due to the lockdowns”. This analysis is drawn from the IMRG Online Retail Index, which tracks online sales for 200 retailers on a sample size of £23bn in 2022.

Pre-pandemic in 2019, growth for the total online market was 5% year on year (YoY). In the first year of lockdowns (2020), it surged to 35%, “a rate of increase so vast that many retailers struggled to cope with such a sudden upturn in volume”. 

But subsequent growth has been negative each month since April 2021 (with the exception of November 2022, when sales were up but by less than 1%). And 2022 as a whole was down 10.5% YoY. Growth is expected to be negative again this year at -0.3%.

IMRG said the comparison of non-lockdown against lockdown periods has made it hard to determine how things have actually changed.

But as life gets back to normal, the picture is becoming clearer. When the value of the index in 2022 is compared against 2019, the overall market is up 17% which, over those three years, represents an average rate of growth of 5.7% annually. That’s completely in line with the pre-pandemic growth rate. 

And what about fashion? IMRG said the clothing category is currently running at 25% ahead of its 2019 value. The category had a different pandemic from other online categories with hardly any growth during the pandemic year of 2020, but making up for it subsequently, despite the much-talked-about challenges faced by online fashion pureplays. 

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at IMRG: “From an online retail value perspective, we might ask ‘pandemic, what pandemic?’ There was a train of thought that suggested existing trends had been accelerated by a decade in the space of a few weeks, but it has become apparent that we are creatures of habit and change simply doesn’t happen at that scale, at that speed. It is probably fair to say that the market is a bit better off than might have been expected if there was no pandemic; the rate of growth had been generally coming down over a period of years so it could have run at lower than +5% per year otherwise, possibly.

“The cost-of-living crisis has caused a real shift in shopping behaviour, with conversion on retail sites dropping away markedly throughout 2022. If there was no Ukraine conflict, could more of that volume have been retained? We’ll never know of course, but the impact of the lockdowns on online retail now looks like a historical blip.”

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