The retail landscape in the United Kingdom is undergoing a seismic shift, particularly in the retail apparel sector. With the rise of e-commerce, traditional brick-and-mortar stores are grappling with new challenges, from dwindling footfall to increased competition from online retailers. However, the narrative isn’t just about the decline of physical retail; it’s about adaptation, innovation, and the strategic integration of online and offline channels. In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore how the apparel sector in the UK can not only survive but thrive by embracing a multi-channel approach, underpinned by the right e-commerce platforms.
The Current State of Retail Apparel in the UK
The United Kingdom has long been a global centre for fashion and retail. Iconic shopping districts like London’s Oxford Street and Manchester’s Arndale Centre have been bustling hubs of activity. However, the retail apparel sector has been hit hard by a series of challenges. High street stores are closing at a rate that has alarmed industry experts. Brands like Debenhams and Topshop have either downsized or disappeared from the high street altogether. Recent data indicates that UK retail sales fell by 1.2% last month, impacted by poor weather and higher interest rates. This decline was much worse than the expected 0.5% drop, suggesting that economic factors are having a notable effect on consumer behaviour (source).
Consumer behaviour is also undergoing a significant shift. More people are choosing to shop online rather than visit physical stores. For example, during Black Friday sales, online platforms often outperform traditional retail outlets in terms of revenue and customer engagement. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this trend. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have made online shopping not just a convenience but a necessity. High street stores that lacked a strong online presence found themselves at a severe disadvantage. The British Retail Consortium reported that shop prices were 0.1% lower in July than in June, with some of the biggest price cuts coming in the cost of clothing and footwear. Retailers have been offering larger discounts to persuade shoppers to spend, despite unseasonable weather conditions (source).
The pandemic has served as a wake-up call for the retail apparel industry in the UK. It has made it clear that having an online presence is no longer optional; it’s essential for survival. Retailers must adapt to this new reality by investing in e-commerce and digital marketing strategies. Those who fail to evolve are at risk of becoming obsolete, overshadowed by competitors who have successfully blended online and offline shopping experiences. The decline in retail sales and the shift towards online shopping indicate that there is still a risk of the UK economy sliding into a recession. Retailers must brace themselves for scarcer spending and focus on a clear value proposition to attract and retain shoppers (source).
Retail Apparel. The Importance of E-commerce
E-commerce has become an indispensable part of the modern retail landscape, particularly in the apparel sector. It’s not just an additional channel for selling products; it’s often the main platform for customer engagement and sales. Companies like ASOS and Boohoo have built their entire business models around online retail, completely bypassing traditional brick-and-mortar stores. These online-first brands have demonstrated that a strong e-commerce strategy can not only sustain a business but also propel it to significant growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized the critical role of e-commerce in the retail industry. When lockdowns were implemented and physical stores had to shut their doors, online platforms became the primary, and sometimes the only, point of sale. Retailers with a robust online presence were able to continue operations and even thrive during these challenging times. For example, Amazon experienced a surge in sales as consumers increasingly turned to online shopping for everything from essentials to leisure items. In this context, innovative technologies have emerged to bridge the gap between online and in-store experiences. Software solutions for virtual fitting rooms, such as Metail, Virtusize, and True Fit, have gained prominence. These platforms allow customers to virtually “try on” clothes before making a purchase, enhancing the online shopping experience and reducing return rates.
In today’s retail environment, having a strong e-commerce platform is not just about setting up an online store. It’s about integrating that online presence seamlessly with other aspects of the business, from inventory management to customer service. Retailers are employing technology to offer features like “Click and Collect,” where customers can order online and pick up in-store. They’re also using virtual fitting room software to improve the online shopping experience, making e-commerce not just a sales channel but a vital, integrated component of the retail ecosystem.
Retail Apparel. Choosing the Right E-commerce Platform
Selecting an e-commerce platform is a pivotal decision that can profoundly influence a retailer’s online success. In the UK, several platforms stand out for their features, scalability, and user experience. Below, we delve into the specifics of each platform, examining their pricing, features, possible applications, benefits, drawbacks, and examples of successful businesses that have leveraged these platforms.
- Website: Shopify
- Pricing: Starts at £29/month for the Basic plan, up to £299/month for the Advanced plan.
- Features: User-friendly interface, extensive app marketplace, robust inventory management.
- Possible Applications: Ideal for small to medium-sized businesses, dropshipping, and those new to e-commerce.
- Benefits: Easy to set up, wide range of customisation options, strong customer support.
- Drawbacks: Can get expensive with add-ons and transaction fees.
- Examples: Gymshark, Allbirds, and KKW Beauty have successfully used Shopify.
Opinion: Shopify is a strong contender for businesses looking for a balance of ease-of-use and functionality. However, costs can add up, especially as your business scales.
- Website: WooCommerce
- Pricing: Free plugin, but hosting and additional features can cost extra.
- Features: WordPress integration, highly customisable, open-source.
- Possible Applications: Best for businesses that already have a WordPress website.
- Benefits: High level of customisation, large community support, cost-effective.
- Drawbacks: Requires technical expertise, hosting costs can add up.
- Examples: Airstream, Porter & York, and Over Clothing have built their online stores with WooCommerce.
Opinion: WooCommerce is a solid choice for businesses that want full control over their online store and have the technical resources to manage it.
- Website: Magento
- Pricing: Free Community version, Enterprise version pricing varies based on requirements.
- Features: Scalable, feature-rich, strong community support.
- Possible Applications: Suitable for large enterprises with complex needs.
- Benefits: Highly scalable, extensive features, strong community.
- Drawbacks: Complex and resource-intensive, requires a dedicated team.
- Examples: Ford, Coca-Cola, and Christian Louboutin use Magento.
Opinion: If you’re a large enterprise with complex needs and the resources to manage a sophisticated platform, Magento is worth considering.
- Website: BigCommerce
- Pricing: Starts at £22.50/month for the Standard plan, up to £224.50/month for the Pro plan.
- Features: SEO-friendly, multi-channel selling, built-in payment gateways.
- Possible Applications: Mid-sized to large businesses focused on growth.
- Benefits: Strong SEO capabilities, supports multi-channel selling.
- Drawbacks: Limited customisation options, pricing can be a barrier for smaller businesses.
- Examples: Skullcandy, Ben & Jerry’s, and CamelBak have successfully used BigCommerce.
Opinion: BigCommerce is a strong choice for businesses focused on growth and search engine visibility but may not be ideal for those on a tight budget.
- Website: Wix eCommerce
- Pricing: Starts at £13/month for the Business Basic plan, up to £22/month for the Business VIP plan.
- Features: Drag-and-drop builder, affordable pricing, good for small businesses.
- Possible Applications: Small businesses, solo entrepreneurs, and hobbyists.
- Benefits: Easy to use, affordable, quick setup.
- Drawbacks: Lacks advanced features, not suitable for larger businesses.
- Examples: Karlie Kloss, French Bull, and Good Feeling Goods have used Wix eCommerce.
Opinion: If you’re a small business or a solo entrepreneur looking for an affordable and easy-to-use platform, Wix eCommerce is a viable option.
Each of these platforms offers unique advantages and drawbacks, and the choice should align with your business strategy and growth objectives. Whether you’re a startup or an established enterprise, the key to success lies in choosing a platform that best suits your needs.
The Omni-Channel Approach
The future of retail apparel in the UK is increasingly focused on the omni-channel approach. This strategy involves the seamless integration of online and offline channels to offer customers a consistent experience. For example, John Lewis has successfully implemented an omni-channel strategy. They offer a ‘Click and Collect’ service where customers can order online and pick up their items in-store. This not only increases foot traffic to their physical stores but also enhances customer convenience.
Another feature that is gaining traction is virtual try-ons, which bridge the gap between online shopping and the in-store experience. Companies like ASOS have incorporated virtual try-on features into their online platforms. Customers can virtually try on clothes using augmented reality before making a purchase. This reduces the likelihood of returns and increases customer satisfaction.
In-store kiosks are also becoming popular as they allow customers to place online orders for items that are out of stock in the physical store. Retailers like Argos have successfully implemented this feature. When a customer finds that an item is out of stock, they can immediately place an online order through the in-store kiosk. This ensures that the retailer doesn’t lose a sale and the customer leaves satisfied.
These examples show how an omni-channel approach can create a symbiotic relationship between online and offline retail, benefiting both the customer and the retailer.
Leveraging Data and Analytics
Data plays a crucial role in shaping the future of retail, especially in the apparel sector. It helps retailers understand various aspects of their business, from customer behaviour to inventory management. For example, Zara uses data analytics to understand fashion trends and customer preferences. They then use this data to manage their inventory effectively, ensuring that popular items are always in stock.
Platforms like Shopify and Magento are particularly useful for retailers looking to leverage data and analytics. Shopify offers a range of analytics features that help retailers track sales, customer behaviour, and even website visits. Businesses like Gymshark have used Shopify’s analytics to understand their customer base better and tailor their marketing strategies accordingly. Magento, on the other hand, offers advanced analytics features suitable for large enterprises. Companies like Ford use Magento’s analytics to manage complex inventories and understand sales trends.
By using these platforms, retailers can make data-driven decisions that enhance both online and in-store experiences. Whether it’s deciding which items to stock more of or understanding how customers navigate through an online store, data analytics provide invaluable insights. Retailers can use these insights to optimise various aspects of their business, from marketing campaigns to in-store layouts, creating a more efficient and customer-friendly environment.
Retail Apparel. Community and Brand Building
Building a strong brand and community is essential in today’s saturated retail market. In the UK, brands like Joules have effectively leveraged social media to build a robust community. They engage with their audience through seasonal campaigns, user-generated content, and interactive posts.
Social media integration is a key element in community and brand building. Platforms like BigCommerce and WooCommerce offer extensive social media integration features. For example, Boohoo, another UK-based fashion retailer, uses BigCommerce and has successfully integrated social media to engage with its community. They regularly post fashion tips, customer testimonials, and new arrivals to keep their audience engaged. On the WooCommerce side, Oliver Bonas, a UK-based lifestyle retailer that also sells apparel, has effectively used social media integrations to engage with its community.
Customer reviews and loyalty programmes also play a significant role in building a community. For instance, Superdry has a loyalty programme that rewards customers for their purchases and engages them through personalised offers. These strategies not only help in building a strong brand but also foster a sense of community among customers, making them more likely to return and engage with the brand in the future.
The survival of the retail apparel sector in the UK is not a question of online versus offline; it’s about creating a synergistic relationship between the two. By choosing the right e-commerce platform, adopting an omni-channel approach, leveraging data, and focusing on community building, retailers can navigate the challenges of the modern landscape. The key lies in adaptation and the strategic use of technology to offer a seamless, engaging customer experience that bridges the gap between the physical and digital worlds.