Elliott Poulter - 03/03/2021
2020 was an incredibly challenging year for everybody – few people who could claim that it wasn’t. For those involved in retail, both in-store and online, it was a whole other. The effects of the global pandemic meant that countries internationally endured national shutdowns and workforce shortages due to the need for self-isolation.
The US followed suit, and retail businesses found it more challenging than ever, with further shifts towards online retail. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, national events encouraged civil unrest that had huge impacts on many small and local businesses. Retailers who solely traded offline or who took most of their sales in-store have suffered unprecedented losses due to mandatory store closures in 2020. This resulted in vast numbers of businesses closing stores, making redundancies, or ceasing trading altogether.
While there have been widely reported (and expected) increases in eCommerce sales, it hasn’t been easy for eCommerce retailers either. While the eCommerce industry as a whole has benefitted from increased sales as the public turned to eCommerce to avoid the risk of shopping in-store, there were, and continue to be, significant challenges to be addressed in the face of customer demand. COVID-19 restrictions have meant working practices needed to be heavily modified, there have been additional expenses for PPE, yet customers were still expecting the same speed of delivery. Product sourcing has been an issue, particularly where retailers import (especially from the Far East) with significantly slower shipping times. Even shipping businesses and couriers didn’t escape the challenges that coronavirus presented, with the need for hands-free deliveries and other increases in precautions for their employees.
With all this to consider, there has been much debate regarding the future of retail and whether bricks and mortar retail can continue to survive. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most significant statistics from both the offline retail sector and eCommerce before moving to look at trends for the year ahead and how retailers can continue to grow both on- and offline as the pandemic progresses.
2020 Retail Statistics
There has been much discussion about the state of the retail industry in the US in recent years. Approximately 5,575 stores closed permanently across the US in 2020, with the loss of around 168,158 jobs – and these aren’t just small retailers. JC Penny, J Crew, Aldo, Gap, and Walgreens all closed a minimum of 200 stores in 2020, and many other household names have disappeared from towns and shopping malls in the past 12 months (and even from existence entirely in many cases) with more expected in the medium to long term. These figures don’t include the temporary closures caused by the pandemic, though, and of course, with more than a million retail outlets in the US, a considerable majority of those stores will either remain closed or have been closed for a period through 2020.
It is estimated that 17% of US retailers currently have credit ratings at the distressed level. The increase in price competition and over-expansion between 2000 and today has meant that retailers have continued to trade in stores that have made losses year on year, hoping to make up the deficit. In addition to private equity businesses changing ownership of companies (which makes long-term planning difficult) and debts continuing to be accrued, customers have switched their priorities. Customers are spending more on eating out, travel and experiences, rather than spending on aspirational products.
Declines in spending and store closures were happening before the pandemic hit, though. In 2019, there were 9,994 store closures, and in 2018, 7,191 – both of which are significantly higher than during 2020! Figures like these make it sound very much like the media reports are correct – that brick-and-mortar retail is dying. But that isn’t the case, according to the National Retail Federation. These figures clearly show that there is something else entirely going on:
- There are currently more than 1 million retail establishments across the US
- Retail sales have grown by almost 4% annually since 2010
- For every company that is closing stores, 5.2 are opening them
- $2.6 trillion is contributed from retail to the annual GDP
- Total retail sales are expected to rise to $5.94 trillion by 2024
So where did this myth come from, if it is not what is happening in reality? The media have reported that retail is dying for several years, with scaremongering tactics designed to drive customers to shop online and encourage them back to stores. The most recent reports have been sparked by a UBS report that projected that retailers would need to close 75,000 stores in the next five years, the cause of which was attributed to eCommerce.
While there are apparent changes to be made for retailers to survive offline and online, brick and mortar retail locations are unlikely to disappear forever as we all switch to shopping online. Assuming continued electricity and a reliable internet connection, it is likely that customers will shop online forever now – that is clear from the continued growth of Amazon, eBay, and Walmart – but that won’t be the only way that they want to interact with retailers.
It is expected that 80% of all retailers will have store fulfillment available in the future, and the location of bricks and mortar stores is paramount to the business’s success. But it is expected that more retailers will adopt an omnichannel approach to their business, which will allow them to serve customers wherever they want to interact with them. Whether it is through their website on a desktop PC, their mobile site, on their social media channels, on marketplaces like Amazon or eBay, or in-store, customers want to interact with retailers in the most convenient ways for them.
This is echoed in findings from ICSC. New store openings increase traffic to retail websites by an average of 37%, indicating that stores will continue to be part of a broader strategy for retailers in the long term.
Omnichannel strategies work, too. Some of the most impressive omnichannel statistics include:
- Companies with omnichannel customer engagement strategies retain an average of 89% of their customers, compared to just 33% of those that don’t
- 72% of digital shoppers consider in-store as the most important channel when they are making a purchase
- 71% of shoppers say their smartphone is vital for their in-store experience
- Customers that buy from a business both online and in-store have a 30% higher lifetime value than those who only shop via one channel
The Effect of COVID-19 on US Retail
Retail footfall in brick and mortar stores took a huge hit. In October 2020, shopper volume was 34.5% lower than in 2019. 90% of US shoppers said that that the pandemic had an impact on their shopping behavior. The most impacted sector has been the fashion and retail industry, and revenues in 2020 were expected to fall by 27% to 30% compared with 2019.
Despite the outlook feeling bleak, it hasn’t all been bad news. Year on year, food and beverage store sales have grown by 8.5%, while general retail has grown by 7.8%, and there has been a dramatic increase in the sale of health and hygiene products and household cleaning products, which has seen a rise of up to 40%. While we expect this figure to have changed since the pandemic has moved on, in March of 2020, 14% of businesses responded that they didn’t expect the coronavirus pandemic to affect their business at all.
We mentioned omnichannel before, and the pandemic has certainly encouraged customers to interact with retailers in different ways than they did previously. Around 15% of consumers that responded to an online survey said that as of June 2020, they were using online, pickup, or in-store services more often. And that’s partly because of the increase in businesses that are investing in omnichannel – the use of omnichannel approaches has risen by 80% since the start of 2020. It makes sense – retailers have to adapt, and there has probably never been a time that they have needed to adapt faster than during a global pandemic.
While there is continued hope for the retail sector, more than half of US consumers say they don’t expect to resume their regular routines until the latter part of 2021, and around 40% of Americans don’t expect their finances to return to normal until late 2021 or even 2022 and beyond.
Compared to the rest of the world, the US is pretty optimistic about the recovery of the economy – 41% in the US said they were optimistic, with only India and China (62% and 58% respectively) having higher expectations. That has been reflected in the news that several retailers have changed their plans to close more than 12,200 stores. Holiday sales rose by 8.3% despite the pandemic. While more holiday purchases were made online than ever, this increase in sales has led to many retailers keeping leases on their brick and mortar locations. This is partly in the hope that when restrictions lift, there will be an increase in footfall to stores and malls.
Whether this will occur will only be discovered in time. There is apprehensiveness, and 60% of customers say that new cases of COVID-19 may deter them from visiting stores. But as the number of people taking up the vaccines increases and the infection rates begins to fall, there is every chance that the public will – slowly but surely – begin to make their way back into stores as they continue to engage with retailers online too.
eCommerce has been made possible since the internet became more widely available, with one of the first online stores recognized as Book Stacks Unlimited. Book Stacks Unlimited began life as a bulletin board service in 1992, but it was around 1998 that eCommerce began to explode. US lingerie company, Victoria’s Secret, was one of the first high street retailers to create an eCommerce website – supported by their mail-order catalog service, but also as a result of streaming their catwalk show. From there on out, a new way of reaching customers was born.
Things have come a long way since 1998. 2.14 billion people are predicted to make online purchases this year, and worldwide, eCommerce sales are expected to exceed $6.54 by 2022. By 2040, 95% of all retail purchases will likely be online, and borders between countries are rarely a barrier to buying from a business. Already, around two-thirds of businesses that sell online also sell internationally – although Brexit has slowed things down for UK retailers temporarily.
While in the western world, the best-known eCommerce companies are Amazon and eBay, they aren’t the only eCommerce powerhouses to be aware of. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the world’s current biggest eCommerce businesses and some of their incredible statistics.
$644.21 billion (B2B, C2C)
Established in China in 1999 by Jack Ma, the goal of Alibaba was to sell more items from Chinese suppliers worldwide. The Alibaba Group now encompasses 14 separate business entities, and in the same way, Amazon has diversified, those businesses aren’t just related to retail. Companies include wholesale and B2C marketplaces and payment platforms, a Linux operating system, electronics, and logistics.
$386.064 billion (B2C, C2C)
Famously started in 1994 from his garage, Jeff Bezos has grown Amazon to be one of the world’s biggest companies. Today, Amazon.com takes 50% of the US eCommerce market – and that is without even starting to think about their presence in the rest of the world and their additional logistics and AWS (Amazon Web Services) arm.
Part of the reason for Amazon’s success is trust, but also Amazon Prime. There are more than 150 million paying Prime members worldwide, allowing customers to access products faster than non-Prime users, and with the other benefits that Prime membership offers, such as TV and music services. Research shows that Prime members are extremely engaged with Amazon and are likely to make purchases at least a few times a week, choosing Prime listings even where costs are similar for non-Prime items.
$93 billion (GMV) (C2C, C2B)
First launched in 1995 as a place for people to sell their unwanted goods, eBay has grown to include 23 international marketplaces with customers in more than 190 markets worldwide. Although initially, the intent was to facilitate the sale of second-hand goods in the auction format, more than 89% of items sold on eBay are fixed price, and 80% of products sold are brand new. The majority of eBay sellers worldwide are in the US (31%) and the UK (29%), followed by Germany (15%) and China (12%).
Usage is high on eBay marketplaces worldwide, with more than 183 active buyers browse more than 1.4 billion live listings, with app downloads now exceeding 530 million worldwide.
$692.16 billion (C2C, B2C)
JD.com (also known as JingDong) was initially launched as 360buy in 1998, and in China, it is a significant competitor to Alibaba-owned Tmall. After establishing itself as a quality retailer (counterfeit goods are strictly not tolerated on the platform), the B2C marketplace became available in 2004. Today, they are comparable with Amazon in terms of the number of available products, with more than 220,000 sellers on the marketplace serving more than 417 million users annually. In addition to their marketplace sellers, they have 650 warehouses across 81 cities in China, giving them over 16 million square meters of space to accommodate stock. The JD.com success story continues to grow, too – it is increasing at well over 20% year on year.
$61.1 billion (C2C) [figures for 2020 not yet released at the time of writing]
Developed as a solution for creating eCommerce websites quickly and only in 2004, Shopify now has more than 1 million merchants worldwide using the platform. The Shopify team reported the billionth order through the platform in the second quarter of 2018. Considering the significant growth in the eCommerce industry due to COVID-19, it is unlikely to be long before they’re reporting more than five billion orders.
The sheer amount of flexibility that Shopify offers merchants is part of the reason for their success. There are more than 100 themes available from Shopify, and paid themes have been used more than 350,000 times by sellers to save on design and set up time – which means getting started selling is incredibly quick and straightforward. Further customization is easy, too, with more than 3,200 apps to support SEO, payment gateways, and customer service tools in the Shopify App Store, negating the need for using a developer.
eCommerce Payment Statistics
Consumers in the UK prefer using PayPal (49%) and credit or debit cards (37%) for their online transactions, which makes sense since card payments are rising – there are over 61.9 million credit cards and 97.3 million debit cards issued in the UK.
Digital wallets and mobile payments haven’t yet gained significant traction in the UK, with Google Pay, Amazon Pay, and Apple Pay used by fewer than 3% of users. There is expected to be a dramatic shift in the near future, though, with around 92% of UK millennials saying that they are expected to adopt mobile payments within the next three years.
Mobile payments are increasing, primarily driven by consumers in China, where more than 81.1% of smartphone users use them. The biggest mobile payment platforms worldwide are:
- Alipay, with more than 1.2 billion active users
- WeChat with more than 1.151 billion active users
- Apple Pay with more than 441 million active users
- PayPal with more than 305 million active users
- Samsung Pay with more than 51 million active users
In Europe, PayPal, Alipay, WeChat Pay, and Union Pay are preferred by 80% of consumers, and the countries with the most adoption of mobile payment technologies are Denmark (40.9%), India (37.6%), South Korea (36.7%) and Sweden (36.2%).
It is estimated that around 84% of adults own a smartphone in the UK, and more than 72% of those users have a faster than 4G connection. With increased availability and more reliable data connections, it is logical that mobile commerce – shopping on a smartphone or other mobile device – has grown too. Well over half of the customers who shop online now complete purchases on their smartphone. This year, mobile commerce is expected to account for more than 72.9% of all retail sales – with the value expected to be more than $3.56 trillion worldwide. The UK share of that is expected to be worth $116 billion by 2023.
With that in mind, retailers with an online presence must provide a seamless experience on mobile devices. It has been the norm for web developers to offer a mobile-ready, responsive version of websites for several years now – but businesses need to ensure the mobile experience is flawless. Just 26% of 18 to 24-year-olds will wait 4-6 seconds for a web page to load – with customer patience and tolerance of wait time decreasing each year.
eCommerce And Social Media
While the link between eCommerce and social media started with retailers merely using social media as an advertising tool, it wasn’t long before the social media giants figured out that there was potential to make money through their platforms. Research by Facebook showed that:
- 83% of people use Instagram when they are looking for new products and services
- 81% actively use social media to help them with product research
- 80% say social media posts aid in making purchase decisions
Since Facebook are pretty open with their research, and other social media companies conduct their research, additional eCommerce functionality is continually being added to social media platforms.
- 25% of businesses are now selling their inventory via Facebook posts
- Facebook Pay was launched in November 2019, with the functionality available within Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp
- Shoppable posts were made available for business users on Instagram in 2018
- TikTok is testing eCommerce functionality, including partnerships with Shopify
- Snapchat launched dynamic ads in 2020 for retailers to reach their 229 million daily active users
- Pinterest released shoppable Product Pins, with pricing, availability, and descriptions available
With the lines between social media and eCommerce becoming further blurred, there is little surprise that the term ‘social commerce’ has started to be referred to more widely – although the term was initially coined as early as 2005. Unsurprisingly, social commerce sales are being led by the Chinese market – and by 2023, sales there are expected to top $474.81 billion.
Retail Trends for 2021
Despite the difficulties faced by retailers throughout 2020, there is still significant hope for the high street sector. There is a need to understand the current trends and pivot accordingly – but by carefully considering the right approach for their business, retailers can still be successful in 2021 and beyond. Here are our predictions for concepts that successful retailers will adopt in the next 12 to 18 months.
Focus On The Customer
This might seem pretty obvious – that the customer comes first in retail – but for many multichannel online retailers, the aim of the game has been to make as many sales as possible. But that has sometimes been detrimental to the customer experience since customers often didn’t receive the same level of service on different platforms. This has led customers to voice their complaints on review websites such as Trustpilot or on social media. Customers now can let the world know about their experience with the company – which opens up the possibility of damage to the company where customer service has been below expectations. Where this is the case, retailers need to respond to these reviews to ensure that other customers can see that they care about responsibly resolving such issues.
There is a lot of discussion around omnichannel (where customers receive the same high level of service wherever they choose to interact with the brand) and omnichannel (where businesses choose the best channels for their customers and then hone their service those channels) approaches to retail. Both of these approaches put the customer experience at the heart of the business to build trust and ultimately improve profits. Getting the right technology in place can help retailers ensure they provide a much better service without investing in additional staff. Customer service responses – both by email and on social media – can be partially handled by chatbots, connections with marketplaces can be automated, and shipping tracking updates can be sent automatically. These issues can be addressed more efficiently with automation and fewer resources required than if staff were to do those tasks manually.
Customers don’t only want choice; they also desire the best possible deal. That doesn’t just mean they want great prices (although clearly, they do – the success of Amazon businesses that secure the lowest price and the Buy Box demonstrates that) they want the best delivery options. Free and fast delivery options are essential for retailers to offer their customers.
Knowing your customers might be one of the first rules of retail, but after setting up, many businesses lose sight of what their customers want – which brings us to our next point.
Commitment To Acting Ethically
The increase in the amount of information that is available about companies means that consumers are also becoming increasingly conscious of the power their purchases have. Customers are not only choosing the products they buy much more consciously, but they are also deciding which businesses they are prepared to buy from much more carefully too. They’re more likely to be shopping from local businesses that they know and trust, or they are likely to look to retailers that are known to act ethically.
To be sure that they aren’t called out on or shunned because of unethical behavior, retailers need to look at every aspect of their business and identify opportunities for improvement. While for small businesses, this may feel intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. It can be simple:
- Taking small steps to become more sustainable (such as switching to recycled packaging)
- Making Fairtrade their preference for essential items
- Ensuring that their supply chain is free from the use of slave labor
- Taking an inclusive approach towards their customers
Being transparent about their efforts on their website and being willing to consciously engage in healthy dialogue with customers on social media is likely to increase transactions with customers who want to act in a more socially conscious way.
The issues that we’ve seen with so many high street retailers going out of business have often been attributed to the inability to cut costs. While we don’t believe these business failures can be solely contributed to eCommerce’s rise, they have most certainly been impacted by the competition that eCommerce businesses present. It makes sense – even pre-pandemic, many customers browsed online ahead of a trip to the high street and were already aware of their options if they didn’t find what they were looking for at a price they were willing to pay.
To remain competitive, retailers are likely to be cutting their costs significantly in 2021 – and will need to do so while keeping the right balance with their ethical credentials. It is a challenge, particularly for small businesses, but with careful consideration, creative use of resources, and significant time invested in automation.
We expect more negotiation with retail landlords, agree to lower rental rates and potentially share retail spaces to reduce costs further.
Creative Use Of Space
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in consumers looking to shop locally – around 43% of people are more likely to shop locally and choose independent retailers rather than with bigger businesses. With the massive changes to the high streets that are happening at the moment, landlords of more significant retail locations are looking to different arrangements for their spaces, including opening up to smaller businesses that want to rent small spaces on a flexible basis – like a more relaxed, responsive type of department store.
Many bigger named stores are diversifying their offerings in the spirit of increasing footfall on the high street. Examples we’re already starting to see for retailers to expand their appeal include:
- Coffee outlets and dining locations
- Shipping collection and dispatch points in-store
- Personal services such as beauty therapy or hairdressing services in-store
- The ability to click and collect where there is a fitting room, increasing returns efficiency
- In-store recycling facilities
Although many purely online retailers intend to stay that way (BooHoo and ASOS could have easily used their acquisitions of Arcadia and Debenhams brands to enter high street locations but chose not to), smaller online retailers are finding high street partners that they can lease space from, sell-through, or to facilitate click and collect style facilities on their behalf.
We don’t see a complete end to high street retail – instead, we predict high street locations changing to become more diverse.
Even without these statistics to prove this statement, it is no secret that the retail industry needs to be reinvigorated if high street locations and out-of-town shopping centers are going to survive. Shifts in consumer spending to online and increased spending in the leisure sector mean that high street locations may no longer focus on our retail activity. Still, if done well, there are exciting times ahead if retailers and councils work together. With the right blend of convenience, choice, and price, retailers with high street locations can continue to succeed – there are plenty of businesses that are already proving that.
Elliott is the Marketing Executive at Olvin.
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