The future of UK retail in 7 questions (1/2)

Credits: gcmagazine.co.uk
Credits: gcmagazine.co.uk

Brexit has recently cast light on the future of the commercial real estate market in the UK. We will definitely tackle this topic in the near future. In the meantime, nonetheless, I thought it was worth getting back to the basics of one of the key underlying markets, i.e. retail, and ask ourselves 7 questions to understand the future of this market. Grocers and ‘non-food’ retailers follow different dynamics, I will therefore limit the discussion to the latter.

As usual, I thought this topic would be covered in only one post. In hindsight, I believe it would be more digestible to cut it in two halves – the second part will follow later this week.


  1. What is the current state of the UK ‘non-food’ retail market?

In a couple of words: not great. The recent misfortunes of BHS and Austin Reed are only the visible manifestations of a deeper trend. Total UK retail sales rose 1.2% on a 12-month average basis, the lowest growth since 2009. According to the latest British Retail Consortium – KPMG survey, in-store sales were particularly affected, falling 1.9% over the three months to June, and 2.2% on a like-for-like basis. The industry has been suffering from constant price pressure over the last decade.

CPI evolution for various perimeters. 2008 = 100. Source: ONS
CPI evolution for various perimeters. 2008 = 100. Source: ONS

Note : The informed reader will have spotted the ‘ups & downs’ generated by the bi-annual sales periods.


2. Are there winners though?

As in many other countries, online is the most dynamic segment of the UK retail market, although it is not immune to global market slowdowns – the latest BRC – KPMG online retail sales monitor reported a 9% growth of online in June 2016 compared with 18% a year ago. Massive online marketing initiatives such as ‘Amazon Prime Day‘ generate positive externalities for the online industry as a whole.

Source: FT
Source: FT

Looking at particular brands, Next, Ted Baker, New Look and pure online player Asos have reported relatively positive sales trends compared with their competitors.


3. Is it all about price?

No. Earlier this month Primark reported its first drop in like-for-like sales for 15 years, echoing the similarly difficult times Poundland is facing in the supermarket segment.


4. Can ‘brick-and-mortar’ sales still be considered in isolation from online? And can stores still be considered as pure points of sale?

Historically ‘standalone’ retail sales could be analysed using the following formula:

Sales = Footfall * Conversion rate * Avg. item price * Avg. quantity

Over the last few months, industry insiders have raised the alarm bell based on a drop in footfall and a very modest increase in average item price (see the clothing & footwear inflation chart above as an example) which have not been offset (yet) by a similarly significant increase in conversion rate (i.e. the share of visiting customers who end up making a purchase) and/or the average number of items per basket.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), one corollary of the previous answer is that this formula cannot be considered as valid any more. This is especially true in the UK where consumers buy more online per head than in other developed economies.

Today stores are increasingly considered as showrooms where consumers get to know a brand and its latest products, hence the refocus on prime locations. The trend is likely to accelerate given the progress made in ‘last-mile logistics’ as proved by Amazon or Ocado. Delivery from a warehouse to the end-customer’s house used to be complicated to plan and very often poorly (if not randomly) executed – actually it is still the case for the vast majority of retailers willing to enter the delivery space. As progress keeps being made in that space, we should see customers going to the shop to get information, then shop online and ultimately be delivered at their door or in convenient locations such as Amazon Lockers.

[to be continued on Thursday…]

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