Virus Drives Online Sales to Record, and Some of That Will Stick

Britain’s Newfound Love of Online Shopping Is Here to Stay

The lockdown created a boom for online retailers, with customers stuck at home demanding everything from restaurant and food delivery to fresh flowers and pre-mixed cocktails. As the U.K. follows other parts of the world in reopening non-essential shops, e-commerce companies are betting that the shift to the web will stick.

Customers who’d previously been reluctant to shop online were forced to try it after stores and restaurants closed in March to contain the pandemic. U.K. online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 33.4% in May, the Office for National Statistics said Friday.

At least some of that business will remain, potentially at the cost of physical shops that were already struggling to compete against customers who increasingly prefer to buy online. Older shoppers trying to minimize their exposure to Covid-19 by avoiding crowds, continued home working and an aversion to lengthy queues should keep the clicks coming.

“There has been a surge in people shopping online for the first time and, given they tend to be older demographics who are most at risk from Covid and therefore more likely to be wary of busy places, they may continue to favor it over the longer-term,” Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director for industry association IMRG. “The problem for high-street retailers is that many were having trouble making the finances work anyway, and Covid has accelerated a shift that was happening slowly.”

Significant Increase

Eleanor Herrin, chief executive officer of grocery delivery firm Farmdrop, said the number of customers, and the size and frequency of their orders, “have increased significantly” during the lockdown, and she’s seeing the biggest gains from customers 45 years old and up.

“Our expectation is that the preference for online shopping developed during the pandemic will continue, even as stores begin to reopen more widely,” Herrin said. “The social distancing measures are still in place and queues outside supermarkets are still common. We expect that the demand for convenient and high-quality online options like Farmdrop will continue at close to current levels.”

Many workers are also still doing their jobs from home or are furloughed, and won’t have the opportunity to pop into shops. There’s also the lingering fear of catching the virus and contributing to a second wave, though U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to “shop with confidence” while staying 2 meters (6-1/2 feet) apart.

During the lockdown, when only stores selling essential items such as groceries and medicine were open, footfall dropped dramatically. On Wednesday, two days after shops reopened, traffic was down 51% from a year ago, according to retail analytics firm Springboard.

Data from countries that have already begun reopening show that traffic hasn’t immediately returned to normal. Retail and recreation foot traffic in Germany and Austria, which began reopening in April, was still around 10% below the baseline as of June 12 in both countries, according to Google Mobility data. France was 25% lower after letting shoppers return in May. Google compares traffic with a median value for the corresponding day of the week taken from a five-week period starting on Jan 3.

Virus Drives Online Sales to Record, and Some of That Will Stick

To be sure, most companies with physical shops have an online presence anyway. The surge in online traffic may mean a reallocation of resources rather than a complete overhaul. Zara owner Inditex SA had so much online demand after it was forced to close its 3,500 stores, that it had to ask volunteers to retrieve clothes from stock rooms to fulfill online orders.

Robert Vis, CEO of enterprise communications startup MessageBird, said he’d observed a trend “super clearly” of customers starting to use a retailer’s increased capacity for handling e-commerce inquiries during the pandemic to speed up their high street shopping.

“We’ve seen one customer of ours in the Netherlands, for instance, online focused but with lots of retail stores, who moved sales to instant messaging channels and turned in-store employees into support staff and salespeople,” he said in an interview. When stores reopened, fewer people came than before the lockdown, and those who did had checked the shop’s stock online first before venturing out, he said.

But companies that predominantly rely on physical stores for sales are playing catchup and are finding that web sales can’t pick up the slack, according to research from Bloomberg Intelligence.

Overall retail sales fell the most on record in April and rose 12% in May, though they’re still 13.1% lower than February, according to the ONS. A separate survey showed that from May 18-31, more than 60% of retailers with an online service said sales stayed the same or rose.

The high street’s broader difficulties -- unsold inventories, slow footfall -- have only been exacerbated by the store closures and need to keep customers and employees a safe distance apart.

Online-only fashion firm has made a specialty of acquiring the web rights of clothing retailers that have gone into administration, announcing this week that it would buy the online rights and intellectual property of Oasis and Warehouse.

“Online retailers are accelerating market-share gains as sales shift to their platforms, while store-based retailers are playing e-commerce catch-up as shops have largely stayed shut in May. Gains in online and food retail can’t offset the dip in apparel. Costly store reopenings with unsold seasonal inventory and slow footfall revival constrain cash flows.”

--Tatiana Lisitsina and Charles Allen, Bloomberg Intelligence

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Green Man Gaming CEO Paul Sulyok said the seller of keys to digital games has always been an online-only retailer, and that during the lockdown the company saw “a healthy double-digit percentage growth” in sales. The industry’s shift away from stores means the gains need not be threatened by the reopening of physical shops.

“If all the retailers in the high street shut down tomorrow, I still have most of my competition online,” Sulyok said in an interview. “About 90% to 95% of sales of PC games are made online now.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.