Feb 19, 2021
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Shuttered fashion stores feel January pain, but online reaches highest ever sales

Feb 19, 2021

The UK’s retail sales fall was worse than expected last month, official figures showed on Friday. And the Office for National Statistics called out clothing stores as the key sector that saw “strong declines”.

Fashion stores stayed closed in January and sector sales plummeted - Photo: Public domain

First, the headline figures. Retail sales volumes fell 8.2% compared with December and their monetary value fell 7.8%, much bigger than the roughly 2.5% volume dip analysts had predicted. Sales volumes were 5.5% lower than before the pandemic in February 2020 and values were down 6.5%. This may be bad news but indicated that the impact of restrictions on the retail sector wasn't as big as that seen in April 2020. Back then, in the first full month of retail restrictions, sales volumes had plunged 22.2% when compared with levels before the pandemic.

Feedback from retailers was clear — enforced closures affected sales, but anecdotal evidence suggested that in January, improved online capability and click & collect purchases helped to lessen the impact.

And online really was the star channel last month. The proportion spent online soared to 35.2% in January, the highest on record. This compares with 29.6% in December 2020 and 19.5% reported in January 2020. And all store types reported an increase in their proportion of online spending.

Now for the fashion sector figures. Clothing saw monthly declines of 35.6% in the amount spent and 34.7% in the quantity bought. Ouch. Those consumers who were buying fashion went online or to supermarkets — after all, they had little choice unless they wanted to forego fashion purchases altogether, which many of them clearly did.

Given that department stores also suffered last month — and they’re big sellers of clothing — that simply adds to the fashion sector’s pain.

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive at New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses on Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street and Mayfair, highlighted just how much of a problem lockdowns continue to be.

“Six weeks into the new year, and the retail sector has already had to forego vital trading moments such as the January sales, Chinese New Year, and Valentine’s Day,” he said. 

He’s hopeful that “visitors will come back to the West End once lockdown is eased” but seems to be frustrated as “retailers must wait with bated breath for the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of lockdown on Monday”.

Boris Johnson is due to announce plans after the weekend but hints and leaks so far suggest they’ll be less clear cut than retailers might hope. Schools are due to go back from March 8 and the reopening of the economy seems to depend very much on how that goes.

But Tyrrell said that what retailers want is “clarity and decisiveness to ensure that there are no further lockdowns, and assurance from the Government that support will be made available to retailers in bridging the gap until sales can properly resume”.

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