A tale of two very different retailers has unfolded with GAP closing UK shops for good to go online only, while with these impressive numbers, Primark seems even more unlikely to reverse its decision not to launch a digital sales platform. Primark may look increasing like an anachronism, a bricks and mortar island fighting off an encroaching online tide, but it has shown that with a strong social media presence it can still entice queues of shoppers through its doors. Although the company notes the outlook is still uncertain, it’s been confident enough to continue with its store opening programme, with seven new shops launching around the world in the third quarter.
When GAP burst onto the British retail scene in 1987 with its brand of American style casual clothing, it was a breath of fresh air for the high street.
GAP was decades ahead in offering the athleisure styles which have become so popular during the pandemic. But even though revenues have surged at GAP over the past year, its own brand ranges haven’t set sales alight, with sales falling 16% in Q1 compared to 2019. By contrast its Old Navy line, sold mainly in the US, saw net sales growth of 25% in the first quarter, and its Athleta range saw growth of 56%.
GAP’s own brand apparel clearly needs revitalising and a fresh sense of direction, with so many other brands now competing in the casual space. Pulling shoppers into stores without a unique offering has become so much harder, particularly given that footfall in the UK is languishing at 75% in high streets and 73% in shopping centres, where so many GAP stores are based.
Shoppers have also become used to using their bedrooms as fitting rooms, and as sizing is easier to assess for casual clothes, have been sending fewer such items back.
In this changing retail landscape and with so much shopping shifting to online, shedding expensive rents makes sense for the company, particularly given the success of online-only fashion rivals. ASOS has already rifled through Arcadia’s bargain bins to take TopShop, Top Man and Miss Selfridge digital. Boohoo has scooped up Debenhams at a knockdown price for an online future.
However although the retail cards have undergone a major reshuffle, this doesn’t herald the demise of the high street. Customers will still want a human connection and retail will continue to play to this basic need. But over the longer term, the exodus of brands which used to have such pull over shoppers means those searching for style will increasingly find solace online, which could push high street footfall down even further.
So it’s likely that many remaining high street retailers will accelerate their plans to sharply reduce their high street presence and invest in digital platforms instead.
GAP’s exit exodus piles on the pressure to re-imagine our town and city centres. Council planners will have to make some difficult calls and change the use of retail spaces. Already, strict rules restricting the use of outside space by hospitality venues have been relaxed temporarily by local authorities. If made permanent, it could lead to former shopping centres flourishing longer term as restaurant quarters instead. New housing and smaller bespoke offices are also likely to take the place of former shops, providing a fresh stream of customers for the retailers that do survive.
This is going to need significant investment from the public sector with costs likely to be too high for commercial property landlords to go it alone. As campus style developments, our distressed city centres may once again find a new lease of life and bring fresh energy back into the retail ecosystem.’’
Senior investment and markets analyst