COVID-19’s Affect on Apparel e-Commerce & Consumer Purchasing Behaviour

We explore how retail businesses are pivoting their strategic efforts to cope with being physically distanced from their consumers.

Fit Analytics is a sizing platform that is trying to solve sizing so retailers can sell smarter. Their work is based on the most significant dataset in the industry. Partnering up with leading apparel companies like ASOS, Mango, and others, Fit Analytics powers billions of unbeatably accurate sizing recommendations by putting machine learning at the heart of all apparel operations.

Fit Analytics AI Platform Helps ASOS App Users Get Sizing Right, First Time

Can Machine-learning Algorithms Solve Retailers Potential Blind Spot: Returns?

The Fit Analytics platform uses the most advanced machine-learning algorithms to solve sizing at scale and produce truly data-driven results. Having recently published an eBook based on their 200+ global retail clients, it provides insights on how COVID-19 has impacted apparel e-commerce thus far, in particular, we noticed the positive effects on apparel returns.

Following an email conversation with Nicole Yazolino, the Global Communications Manager of Fit Analytics, she gave us a break down on how the initial impact of Coronavirus has affected the global apparel e-commerce business. In their published report, they present their observations on the purchasing behaviours and projections affecting apparel returns for both e-commerce and omnichannel retailers.

What has been your initial impression on how COVID-19 has been affecting the apparel e-commerce community?

A shift from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce growth has been on the rise for the past decade, but now in absolute, current events are necessitating this strategy. What we have learned from the data is that the small, albeit important, silver-lining amidst the devastating blow to retail is that consumers are adapting daily to the changes and embracing new purchasing experiences. Store consumers are utilizing technology, and apparel shoppers are overcoming their instincts to return.

The way that retailers in the fashion industry operate has seen little change – despite the innovations to apparel technology. What we predict and hope is that more retailers will truly embrace the omnichannel experience, conducting the digital world in stores and bringing the in-store experiences online.

How has global purchasing behaviour been affected by COVID-19?

We aggregated data from our client database of 200+ retailers situated on six continents. From our data, we identified that despite a widespread global transmission of COVID-19 in the first quarter – we saw a 27% increase in overall purchases compared to 2019. Purchase trends throughout the first quarter were very similar in 2019 and 2020. It wasn’t until March 2020 that purchases were impacted- likely due to the pandemic.

How has the virus impacted different regions globally?

We know that COVID-19 has impacted the entire world, but at different times and spreading at different rates. Reviewing the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, we see similar purchase trends in January and February 2020 to that of 2019 – aside from the US which fell relatively flat in 2019 and showed much more volatile buying behaviour this year. Our insights show that in March, just as businesses closed their doors and people stayed home in Italy (March 9), Spain (March 14), and the US (March 23-30) – there was a decline in purchases made.

How did buyer behaviour change in Asia?

The virus started in East Asia, and the region immediately saw the effects. In 2019, Eastern Asia increased the number of purchases by 36% from January to February and 27% from February to March. This year, likely due to COVID-19, Eastern Asia saw a decrease of 26% over the same period from January to February, and another decline of 3% from February to March.

We know that COVID-19 has impacted the entire world, but how has northern America faired?

North America did not start to see a quick spread of the virus until March. We can see that North America had an 11% lift in February 2020, unlike the 11% decline compared to last year. In March, however, North America was widely affected by COVID-19 and purchases dropped by 16%. As of April 7, 95% of Americans have been ordered to stay home. We expect to see similar trends throughout the month of April.

With countries on lockdown and people ordered to stay home has there been a steady decline in size sampling?

We believe people are ordering fewer sizes due to stay at home orders and limitations on being able to return items. Of the top 100 retailers, 19% have temporary return policies during the pandemic. They’ve either extended the time shoppers have to return items or, in some cases, eliminated the policy altogether. Even with these changes, it appears that consumers are still sceptical of purchasing additional sizes at the moment.

This could foreshadow a positive impact on costly apparel returns. With multi-size buying, one item is guaranteed not to fit and therefore leads to a return being made.

What type of effect has store closures (due to COVID-19) had on fashion retailers?

We found that Omni-retailers experienced a steady decline in online purchases in January and February: in line with 2019 – but at a steeper rate. Whereas e-commerce only retailers maintained flat purchase trends until March, where we saw a significant decrease.

This could be because of customers that shop e-commerce only stores, may be more familiar with their size or more comfortable making purchases online, whereas those who purchase in stores may feel the opposite. Due to the unfamiliarity, we can expect to see a contrast in multi-size orders between the two channels.

Looking at the data, we can see that multi-size purchases stayed relatively flat in e-commerce only stores but increased through early March for omnichannel retailers. This indicates that typical in-store shoppers were shopping online and perhaps not aware of
our size advisor available to them. We see both retail types drop in March, likely due to the sudden uncertainty of returns with store closures and stay-at-home orders.

In your opinion, what have the purchasing trends for omnichannel retailers indicated?

It is apparent that store closures negatively impacted their online shopping, resulting in fewer purchases and more size sampling. The impact on omnichannel retailers is enlightening, but it’s not all doom and gloom. With technology and in-store innovations, bridging the gap between online and offline is becoming easier. There are options for keeping brick and mortar stores operational during these uncertain time, like same-day orders with BOPUS (Buy Online and Pick-Up in Store) and packing store merchandise for online shipping.

Once stores reopen, there may still be a level of caution as the memories of COVID-19 are fresh. Size technology available in-stores allows customers to be fully confident to search for their perfect fit more efficiently and speedily, without the risk of putting their health in jeopardy by trying on clothes in a fitting room which may or may not be fully sanitized.

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