Supermarket clothing floors are set to stay open in lockdown - could this be their chance to shine?

They are likely to be the only places we can buy fashion offline all winter

M&S
Clothes from Marks & Spencer

Fashion can sometimes feel like essential retail, even in a pandemic. Whether that means a child that’s out-grown its winter shoes, a new baby without a warm cardigan, or a parent in hospital without pyjamas, thousands of people across the UK need access to clothes, not in four to seven days, but right now. 

Perhaps this is the reason why governments in England and Scotland have allowed supermarkets to keep their fashion floors open even when non-essential retail is banned. Unlike last March’s lockdown, when most clothing aisles were cordoned off, over a week into this new shutdown and Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisson’s are still selling apparel. 

Given that high streets are likely to remain closed until late March, supermarkets are probably the only places we will be able to buy clothes offline all winter. But what does this mean for brands like Sainsbury’s Tu, George at Asda and M&S? They already have a high share of the market - will this increase significantly?

“By the end of 2020, Asda was number two in the UK for the volume of clothes sold, Sainsbury’s was number six and Tesco was number seven,” says Clive Black, a senior analyst for Shore Capital Markets. “They have always had very big businesses and yes they have grown their market share a bit, but even they aren’t immune to the fact few people need new clothes in a pandemic. My view is that a rising tide sinks all ships – yes they will do better than others because they’re open and convenient, but they certainly won’t clean up.” 

Credit: REUTERS

Oxford Street is empty. So empty that it could do with a proverbial dust ball rolling down it just to illustrate how few people are in central London. Tellingly, even McDonald’s is shut. But M&S is open and with the food hall in the basement, the entire ground floor is dedicated to fashion, which instead of exclusively selling women’s clothes as it did before, now also displays a mix of lingerie, maternity clothes, menswear and activewear, which have been brought down from the upper floors.  

M&S has clearly made an effort to focus on pandemic-friendly fashion, with lots of leggings, bras, jumpers and pyjamas – all of their more fashion-focused collections, such as their collaboration with Nobody’s Child, are only available online. A spokesperson for M&S explained that the company doesn’t believe people are browsing for fashion in person right now, instead are using the clothing floors for convenience purposes only. 

“Consumers are buying babywear and underwear from supermarkets, not ball gowns, so it is the right decision in my view,” says Anita Balchandani, a partner at McKinsey. “Supermarkets sell the types of things households need to keep going in a restricted lifestyle - which is why they did well even when high streets were open, as customers tried to limit the numbers of stores they visited. They are responding to a consumer need and keeping things easy and quick and fast, but even so, I don’t predict a bumper growth for them.”

Collections from Sainsbury's

The numbers reflect that. Asda now has a 4.1 percent share of the UK clothing market, up from 3.6 percent pre-pandemic. Sainsbury’s gained 51 basic points of market share in its clothing category in the last quarter - compare that to Primark and Next which both lost an average of 50 - but Sainsbury's clothing sales only grew by 0.4 percent in the same time period.  Last year, M&S clothing sales went down by 25 percent overall, but up 50 percent online. 

The M&S Oxford Street was largely empty yesterday afternoon, and the fitting rooms closed, but there were still queues of people collecting items they’d ordered online or returning goods. Today, Nicola Sturgeon put new restrictions on click and collect in Scotland, and John Lewis announced that it would be putting an end to it, as it was leading to too many people gathering outside shops. But there is certainly a financial incentive to allowing in-store returns. 

“Selling clothes in bricks and mortar – particularly the kind of affordable lines supermarkets specialise in – is far, far more efficient than online, particularly now customers expect rapid delivery and returns postage paid upfront,” says Peter Mace, a retail expert at Cushman & Wakefield. “People are using their homes as changing rooms and sending back half of their purchases, which ends up being very expensive for retailers. But supermarkets are not having to deal with this headache which is a huge bonus for them.”

Credit: REUTERS

The laws around all this are somewhat murky. Supermarkets are allowed to sell clothing, books, toys and make-up and accept returns on them, so long as more than 50 percent of the store is given over to essential retail. Every floor also has to sell some essential retail – M&S Oxford Street, for example, has had to close its upper floors but can claim the fashion-only ground floor is an entrance to the food hall. This does open up possible loopholes - could fashion brands reopen if half their premises were dedicated to food? Could stores like Whole Foods start selling in-house clothing concessions?

Interestingly, when Wales announced its firebreak lockdown in October, supermarkets were initially allowed to keep fashion aisles open but after it led to an outcry from local clothing brands, the rules were reversed. But no such backlash has occurred in England. 

“I think that overall, supermarket fashion specialises in basics and most clothing brands don’t consider them direct competitors,” says Balchandani. “What brands are really damaged by is a lack of tourist traffic, which is something else that doesn’t affect supermarkets.”

It is true that few people travel to London to shop for clothes at Sainsbury’s, but as the queues outside Primark each time lockdown has lifted prove, there is a huge appetite in the UK for discount fashion.

Primark has no online channel so is unable to sell clothes until the end of lockdown, meaning supermarkets will take on those sales. As more people in the 60-plus category are vaccinated (also the category least likely to shop online) supermarkets could see a bump in sales from them. An early spring in lockdown, meanwhile, would also have a positive impact.    

Ultimately, supermarkets clothing lines are unlikely to see much growth in this grimmest of winters. But unlike almost every other fashion brand in the UK, they aren't going to see sales fall in a significant way, and that means something at a time like this. 

I just hope that it leads to supermarkets, M&S aside, improving their collections.  Instead of garish colours, synthetic fabrics and far too many slogans, how about some white cotton T-shirts, well-made sports bras and simple navy pyjamas?