2020 UK Retail Trends & What We Can Learn From Them

2020 was an undeniably tough year for retail, with the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in several lockdowns, a recession, and a whole host of curbs on what we once knew to be business as usual. Despite all of this, it seems that the retail sector is not yet clear and dry from instability. 2021 may have brought with it a widespread vaccination programme, but lockdown continues and so-called ‘non-essential’ retailers are still faced with indefinite closure.

It is never easy to predict what the future may hold for businesses of any kind, but the volatile nature of the pandemic and the government measures brought in to stem in spread make it even harder to strategise for the year ahead. Instead, looking to the past may hold the key to future prosperity – and so we’ve taken a look at 2020’s top retail trends so you can get on top of the months ahead.

Changing tastes

Few would disagree that the greatest change for the retail industry during 2020 was mandatory closure. Never before has there been a time when the UK’s stores couldn’t open up and at least trade during limited hours – but social distancing and the public’s ‘stay at home’ efforts made it necessary for shops to shut. With people spending more time at home, many retailers also noticed a shift in tastes, and there were some clear winners and losers among the product lines affected.

Official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that clothing sales dropped by some 25% – their biggest decline in the 23 years since records began. Breaking this trend down further, while some retailers have reported renewed demand for loungewear and other less formal attire, workwear and ‘going out’ clothes have suffered considerably since many members of the public simply aren’t going anywhere and so don’t need a wardrobe refit. Contrastingly, some of 2020’s best-performing products fell into the homeware and DIY categories – which makes sense given that people spending more time at home might like to spruce the place up.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that can only really be discussed with the benefit of hindsight. Even businesses with the very best commercial intelligence struggle to accurately predict consumer trends, and so the lesson really is just to keep up with demand and move with the times.

Retail is all about supplying the public with the products they want – and their tastes are always subject to change. By making our peace with the fluid nature of retail, perhaps we can avoid the fate that far too many businesses suffered from during 2020.

Higher standards for e-commerce

Part of the decline in footfall to bricks-and-mortar shops can arguably be attributed not to the COVID-19 lockdowns, but rather to the meteoric rise of e-commerce. Fighting back against temporary closure, many businesses focussed on growing out their online presence to ensure customers could still shop with them even if they were stuck at home.

The aforementioned ONS study showed that the value of online retail sales jumped by over 46% in 2020 as compared to 2019 – marking the strongest period of annual growth since 2008. With online sales now accounting for in excess of one-third of all UK retail transactions, Statista reports indicate that some 87% of UK citizens made an online purchase during 2020.

Whatever opinion you hold on the merits or demerits of online shopping, it’s impossible to deny that there’s a real future for digital retail. Websites have now become the primary sales funnel for many brands, and that means businesses need to put much more effort into their online presence if they’re to compete with the swathes of businesses that are now competing for a cut of the market.

If businesses are to succeed in this new digital retail environment, they need to stay on top of their game – even if they already have an online presence. With so many new competitors entering the e-commerce market, it follows that there is now much greater competition than before the pandemic, and so firms should consider investing in their digital marketing efforts along with the general functionality of their sites.

One example comes from the field of payment solutions, an area that businesses must give attention to if they wish to succeed in the digital world. Customers that can’t check out easily are unlikely to stick around to see their purchases complete, and at a time when consumers are used to getting what they want when they want it, retailers need to keep pace.

Firms that want to perform well on this front may wish to consider whether their online store is lacking a quality eCommerce payment gateway – a piece of cutting edge technology that makes it possible to serve customers rapidly and reliably 24/7, 365 days per year. It’s this kind of competitive edge that set about the winners and losers in 2020, and there’s no doubt that it will continue to do so during 2021.

The rise of click-and-collect

Even despite the unmatchable growth of e-commerce during 2020, retailers shouldn’t give up on physical stores just yet. Whilst many online orders were fulfilled by Royal Mail and Couriers, research from RetailX shows that 54% of the UK Top500 group of elite retailers were offering click-and-collect by November. This translated into a third of all the year’s online retail sales reaching their destinations via a click-and-collect service.

What this shows is that even despite the lockdowns, there’s still room for some kind of physical retail footprint in the UK. It’ll certainly be quite different from the way things were before, however, and businesses will need to adapt to comply with social distancing measures. That means continuing with your orders for quality card machine paper and other supplies, but supplementing your strategy with an investment in contactless payment technology and other such means of reducing contact points within your store.

Lessons from the past, hopes for the future

As we accelerate out of the 2020 slump, many retailers will be hoping that 2021 turns out to be much more positive than its predecessor. It remains to be seen whether the various global vaccination programmes will see a return to the highstreets during the next 12 months, but armed with the lessons of the last year, the business community is now better equipped to deal with whatever may come its way.