Online sales flat before coronavirus really hit, new figures show

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For the month of February, before the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold, overall online retail sales growth limped in at -0.4% year-on-year, according to the latest figures from the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index.

Following a very slow start to the year, the UK’s string of winter storms failed to stimulate online demand. Despite the surprising upturn in late 2019, February’s result continues the weak growth seen in January 2020.

Performance falls well below the three, six and 12- month rolling averages of +4.0%, +7.5% and +5.3% respectively. Month-on-Month growth was down -0.7% – which falls in line with last year’s figures, but comes from a much lower base in 2020.

The growing disparity between retailer type intensified, with multichannel sales down -8.2% while online only was up +12.5%. These polarised figures point to an emerging trend in the diverging fortunes of the two different retailer types, which could now be hugely exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at IMRG, said: “Over the past few years, retail has become an industry beset with problems – even before the coronavirus crisis hit the UK, which has massively shifted shopper behaviour.

We were already seeing a division opening up between the growth fortunes of multichannel and online-only retailers, and this might be a trend that becomes increasingly profound given the current climate.”

Mulcahy also said that during the current crisis the move to purchasing groceries online has been steady but limited by capacity to fulfil orders.

“Now that stockpiling has driven demand to unprecedented levels, we may see a situation where shopper behaviour shifts over to that as a preferred channel very rapidly. Equally for general merchandise – with so little clarity over how long the current crisis will go on, people might have little choice but to switch all purchasing online.”

IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index tracks the online sales performance of over 200 retailers.