Sales at UK’s biggest online retailers jump 23% in a year

Published on 05 March 2018

Growth of mobile commerce helping fuel ‘anywhere, anytime’ retailing.

Sales at the UK’s 20 biggest online-only retailers have jumped by almost a quarter (23%) in the last year, hitting £8.4 billion in 2016/17, up from £6.8 billion 2015/16*, reveals research by City-headquartered professional services firm RPC.


RPC says that this sharp rise highlights that the e-commerce boom shows no signs of slowing down, thanks in large part to the rise of mobile commerce, as shoppers embrace ‘anywhere, anytime’ shopping via their smartphones.


Recent developments in e-retail include:


  • AI-driven ‘chat bots’ on mobile e-retail platforms which engage shoppers in conversation to advise and suggest purchases
  • Augmented Reality functionality in e-retail apps, allowing shoppers to see exactly how a purchase will look in their home
  • Use of spoken keywords for AI-enabled smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo – US consumers can already order from Walmart through smart speakers
  • ‘Snap and shop’, which allows shoppers to search for purchases using their smartphone cameras – this can be done through social media platforms like Pinterest

Online retailers are also sharpening their competitive edge by investing in automation in their warehousing and logistics to become more efficient as competition on choice, price and customer convenience intensifies. For example, online grocer Ocado has just announced it is to invest £150m in warehouse robotics.


RPC’s research covers household names such as Ocado, ASOS and, as well as fast-growing brands such as furniture e-tailer and online beauty retailer Feelunique.


There is also evidence of the extent to which bricks-and-mortar retailers are reliant on their online offerings to deliver sales growth. For example, RPC’s research found that in the last year Marks & Spencer’s online sales were up by 6%, compared to just 1% for its retail operations as a whole.


Jeremy Drew, Co-Head of Retail at RPC says: “The maturing of m-commerce is helping e-retailers super-charge sales.”


“Increasingly sophisticated mobile shopping platforms are making it easy for consumers to make purchases quickly and easily whenever they want, wherever they are.”


“From being virtually unknown five or ten years ago, many online-only retailers are building strong brands and grabbing more and more market share. Innovative business models and rapidly evolving new technologies such as robotics and AI are enabling e-tailers to be increasingly agile and responsive to customers, while still keeping prices down.”


“Now we are seeing more bricks-and-mortar retailers investing heavily in their online offerings too, in an attempt to catch up.”


Karen Hendy, RPC’s Co-Head of Retail adds, “As online-only sales continue to grow strongly, there’s real potential for a wave of consolidation among e-retailers.”


“Some of the larger players will be keeping an eye out for fast-growing platforms they can bolt-on, in order to rapidly grow their customer bases or to give themselves a foot in the door of new markets. We are already seeing this sort of strategic deal-making taking place.”


For example, in 2017, fashion e-tailer BooHoo acquired online rival Pretty Little Thing and US fashion label Nasty Gal in deals worth over £19 million. In 2016, online cycle retailers Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles merged to strengthen their position in the online market.


Tesco is currently in the process of completing a £3.7billion takeover of wholesale group Booker. Other recent examples of M&A activity in retail in the last year include American retailer Innovative Bites’ takeover of Hancocks confectioners in April.


*Top 20 by turnover. Data from annual reports of companies with year-end dates between March 2016 and August 2017 (latest available)

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