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Retail Reopens: Insights from Europe

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Data from Europe can help retailers prepare to reopen non-essential shops in the UK.


As UK retailers prepare to reopen non-essential shops from 15 June, the industry is eagerly awaiting a first glimpse of the “new normal” for British retail. How will customers return, and what will they be looking for? How will spending habits change, and will those changes last?

This week we’re looking at trading data from Europe, where shops have reopened after lockdown periods, for insights that can help retailers prepare for what’s to come in the UK. For fashion and seasonal businesses, the road to recovery will no doubt be difficult, but we’re cautiously optimistic about the early bounce back our customers have seen.

Key insights:

1. Trade is resuming quickly, and in many cases exceeding expectations

2. Demand is coming from online growth and new parts of the store estate

3. Customers are excited about discounts and sales can boost average order value

4. Customers are still shopping full price - and when they are, they’re spending more

1. Trade is resuming quickly, and in many cases exceeding expectations

Lockdowns and restrictions on non-essential shopping from late March wreaked havoc on the clothing industry in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics, “volume of clothing sales in April 2020 plummeted by 50.2% when compared with March 2020, which had already fallen by 34.9%”.

Germany was similarly affected, recording a drop in sales of clothing and shoes of more than 70% in April. After retailers were permitted to reopen in early May, UK retailer Superdry said “initial trading had exceeded expectations” in Germany and that sales “moved from being about 70% down to around minus 30%”.

One of our fast-fashion customers has seen even better results since reopening more than 50 stores in Germany - sales volume and revenue are down from normal levels by just 10%. In France, both volume and revenue have quickly exceed expected levels. These results are aided by discounting, but customers are still shopping full price, especially where styles are highly seasonally relevant.

2. Demand is coming from online growth and new parts of the store estate

Lockdowns have accelerated online demand, particularly for retailers who were equipped to handle a sudden channel shift. In the UK, John Lewis, saw an 84% uplift in online sales between mid-March and mid-April. Data from fintech startup Joko shows that in France, 18 – 35 year olds increased spend with digital brands like ASOS and BooHoo and decreased spend with Zara and H&M during the first two weeks of lockdown.

In Europe, we’ve seen 20% - 50% growth in online sales during the lockdown period, and in most cases this trend has continued even after stores reopened. The ongoing pandemic has rapidly accelerated online shopping, even in relatively saturated areas like clothing, and it looks like this change is here to stay.

Customers visiting physical retail locations are choosing where to shop carefully. In Germany, we’ve seen some stores exceed sales expectations by more than +50%, and others fall short of plan by up to 80%. Fast-fashion customers have so far preferred to visit less densely occupied areas – shops further out of large city centres and accessible by street entrance. Since shops reopened, the least favoured have been those inside shopping malls or city centres, and those near international borders.

Retailers in the UK are already responding to this trend – John Lewis has reportedly chosen to prioritise opening locations that are accessible by car. When stores do open, merchandising and allocations teams will need to react to new trading patterns and reserve replenishment for stores with the most (maybe new-found) potential.

3. Customers are excited about discounts and sales can boost average order value

Despite some cancelled orders and realigned stock, most UK retailers are reopening with unprecedented levels of inventory – much of it ageing quickly. It’s no surprise then that they have already started discounting, and customers are expecting mega deals in the coming weeks.

Marks & Spencer acted quickly to bring forward their usual summer clearance sale to mid-May. Dubbed the “Rainbow Sale”, they aim to clear £15b worth of stock and benefit NHS charities with “the sale of the century”. The scope of the sale is a clear sign that M&S is using this opportunity to address problems that persisted long before lockdown.

When it comes to discounting, we recommend retailers focus on their own stock, rather than on following the competition. More than ever, stock positions are highly variable and brands that attempt to match marketing messages risk eroding margin on their most profitable lines.

In Europe, fast-fashion customers appear to be excited about sale and willing to spend more than usual when they visit stores. In Italy, we’ve seen transactions down 15% in some cases, but sales volume and revenue near normal levels – a result attributed to early discounting on some products.

Some retailers are trying to hold back - Primark set expectations earlier this week that despite holding nearly 2x their normal levels of inventory, customers shouldn’t expect “special discounting”. It’s a necessary move for the brand, which can’t afford to get involved in a promotionally driven business model, but they face tougher competition in a deeply discounted market.

4. Customers are still shopping full price - and when they are, they’re spending more

Possibly the most encouraging sign we’ve seen from Europe is that fashion shoppers are still willing to pay full price – and when they do, they’re spending more.

We looked at the top 15 full price items sold by a fast-fashion retailer in France last week and found the average ticket price was double the comparable figure from last year. Ten percent of baskets included at least 1 of the top full price items. Despite significantly increased sale activity, customers splurged on highly relevant seasonal products like basic dresses and shorts, fashion shorts, and fashion tops.

Willingness to spend (and even splurge) is an encouraging sign and a huge opportunity for retailers in the UK, but to maximise margins and effectively clear ageing stock, merchandising teams will have to decide where to place their bets and their markdown spend. It’s a difficult task in the best of times, but with the added complexity of staggered store openings and variable demand, it’s guesswork. In times like this, retailers need to make data-driven decisions with the help of technology like Sparkbox.

Sparkbox uses machine learning to improve sell through and profitability by optimising pricing and merchandising decisions. We help merchandising teams leverage their data to identify trading opportunities and proactively mitigate risks at the product level. Sparkbox has been named “a top global retail tech startup” by Retail Week and is nominated for 5 Retail Systems Awards in 2020, including Artificial Intelligence Project of the Year.

In a recent conversation with Stylus about overcoming overstock, Sparkbox Co-founder Lindsay Fisher said: “Fashion retailers have been making decisions based on intuition, but this week’s trade will not be next week’s trade anymore. There is no baseline anymore – technology must underpin every decision.”

For more information or if we can help your team, please reach us at

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