Clothes shopping is falling out of fashion in the UK, and not just because more people are buying online.
Profits have dived at the biggest retailers, as the number of clothes sold has dropped precipitously, by an average of 4.4 per cent in five of the past six months.
“Consumers are switching their spending away from apparel to an extent we have never seen before,” said Geoff Ruddell, retail analyst at Morgan Stanley. “The fact that volumes have gone into decline for the first time in more than 20 years is remarkable.”
The mystery is why, especially because retail spending in general has not dropped. Many shops blame milder weather, but analysts have also pointed to changing customer habits, with people preferring to spend their money on meals and holidays.
Shoppers also appear to be switching away from disposable fashion.
Layla Faruque is a Manchester-based student with two part-time jobs. “I love buying clothes and shoes but these past few months I’ve noticed I’ll never buy anything unless it’s got a discount,” said the 20-year-old. “And once I’ve waited, I forget about it, so I’ve ended up buying half the things I’d usually buy on impulse. I was talking to my mum about it — and she’s the same.”
The trend is highly unusual. Apart from brief hiccups in 2011 and 2012, people have been steadily buying more since 1999.
According to the Office for National Statistics, overall UK retail spending grew by a robust 4 per cent in August compared with the same month last year. But spending on clothes and footwear from high street shops and their websites dropped by 4 per cent.
Britain’s biggest shops are suffering as a result. Marks and Spencer, the largest clothes retailer with 10 per cent of the market, is cutting jobs after reporting its sharpest quarterly decline in clothing sales for more than a decade, in July. French Connection has not reported a pre-tax profit since 2012.
Even some of the high street winners appear to be struggling to ride out the competitive pressure and cut-throat discounting.
John Lewis posted a 75 per cent fall in half-year profits while Lord Wolfson, chief executive of Next, correctly predicted earlier this year that 2016 would be like “walking up the down escalator” and said last week that trading was tough.
Primark, the discount chain that is the most visited retailer on the high street, last week reported the first drop in same-store sales in the UK for 16 years. It blamed a warm autumn last year and a cold spring this year.
Glen Tooke, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, which tracks the clothing purchases of a representative panel of 15,000 Britons, said consumers believe the weather is becoming less predictable, meaning they wait for a cold winter snap or a summer heatwave to materialise before buying.
“Ten years ago you might have been buying your winter clothes now,” he said, as London basked in golden sunlight one September afternoon. “To be honest, no one is going to go and buy a coat today.”
But Mr Ruddell, who has examined UK temperatures and rainfall patterns, said that apart from last December, which was relatively warm, the weather has not been that unusual since.
He points out that other countries, notably France and the US, are experiencing a similar slowdown in clothing sales, albeit not as pronounced as in the UK, suggesting weather can be only part of the reason.
Reasons why clothes shopping may be falling out of fashion
• Faced with unpredictable weather, people are waiting to buy summer or winter clothes until they need them
• Shoppers now wait for discounting before they buy
• Retailers say there has been no major sweeping trend to force the fashion-conscious to change their wardrobes in the past ten years
• Millennials are saving their money for experiences such as holidays or fine dining, rather than spending it on fashion
Another theory is that people are diverting their spending to eating out and holidays. According to Deloitte, the consultancy, leisure is attracting one and a half times more discretionary spending then retail, and the sector is growing twice as fast.
Others point out that, even if people are spending more on leisure, there is little evidence that they need to cut back on clothes shopping to do so. When discretionary spending rises, it is usually an indication of consumer confidence, whereas cutting back on clothes would suggest the opposite.
It could also be that, after years of frenzied high street expeditions, it was only a matter of time before shoppers took a breather. According to Kantar, each man, woman and child bought an average of 60 items of clothing last year.
“This is the first time the UK fashion market has declined for seven years,” said Mr Tooke. “It’s quite unprecedented. We’ve looked, and we can’t find another £36bn market that’s seen such consistent growth.”
Ms Faruque, who edits the fashion pages on a student magazine, said as long as the discounting goes on, she will not change the way she shops. “It’s odd really because I’m earning more money now than a few years ago, so I have more expendable cash but I’m waiting for the discounts. I know the retailers are so desperate that they will discount prices.”