The UK - A nation of online shoppers
The French Emperor Napoleon I famously called the British “a nation of shopkeepers.” The reason
for this quote: “L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers” was because Napoleon thought Britain
was unfit to fight against the military might of France and was cocking a snook. Napoleon was
wrong, of course, and his arrogant underestimation of the British ultimately proved his downfall.
But if “Old Boney” were alive now, and looking at the data from this chart, he’d be right in stating
that: “Britain is a nation of online shoppers.” And he’d have to admit that France is not far behind.
The recent comScore data derived from European Internet behaviour shows that in the month of
January this year an average UK online shopper spent 84.1 minutes visiting retail websites. French
online shoppers were just behind at 83.2 minutes. It’s interesting to see that the British and French
online shoppers spent considerably more time than the average European’s 52.4 minutes. The
Belgians came last, spending just under half an hour - 29.7 minutes - visiting retail websites.
What is remarkable, however, as the pie chart demonstrates, is that across Europe people spend
the greatest amount of time online shopping for clothing. The clothing sector, (often called apparel
in the United States), has been a surprising e-commerce success. In the early days of e-commerce
online purchases were limited to low cost, and easily despatched, items like books, CDs and DVDs.
Clothing, and particularly fashion clothing, was considered to be an impossible product category to
sell online primarily because of the perceived need to try-on garments or shoes before purchase.
How wrong this turned out to be. In the UK in 2010, for example, eBay’s fashion revenues were
10% higher than any other area of its e-commerce sales. As the data in the pie chart confirms,
shoppers want to buy clothes online, particularly in Europe.
The e-commerce giant, Amazon, built its success on low cost staple products like books and CDs. In
fact, it started trading solely as a bookstore in 1995 and it wasn’t until 11 years later, in 2006, that it
finally responded to the rapid growth of the online fashion sector by purchasing Shopbop.com. In
the last month (April 2011) the Shopbop website has undergone a major redesign, but
unfortunately it still only offers free returns to customers in the United States and not to
Europeans. This is surprising as Amazon’s usually on the ball. It must know that it’s been the free
returns policy that has been the key driver behind the exponential increase of online fashion
purchases as it overcomes the inconvenience of not being able to try on a garment before buying it.
In fact free returns have been a major contributor to the rapid growth of popular online fashion
retailers like asos.com. It also clearly helps the online clothes sales of established high street
stores like Monsoon. Perhaps it’s only the supermarket clothing brands like George at ASDA
(Wal*Mart), or stores like Marks & Spencer, which have less need to offer free delivery for returning
unsatisfactory garments: With a multiplicity of stores there is always somewhere within a
comparatively short distance where the garment can be returned for a swap or a refund. Typically,
clothing return rates can run at 10%-30% of sales, so providing free returns is a major cost for
online retailers but they clearly make enough profit to cover it. So until Amazon’s Shopbop starts
offering free returns on clothes, I don’t expect it to be a great success in Europe.
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