2022 was a year to forget for the UK retail industry – characterised by inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. Indeed, spiralling costs curbed consumers’ ability to spend on non-essential items, and December’s rise in retail sales was driven largely by inflation pushing up the value of goods being sold.
Amid this pessimistic atmosphere, the latest findings from Pitney Bowes BOXpoll consumer surveys paint a more positive picture than was perhaps expected, as well as illustrating the key trends that retailers will need to watch in 2023. “Trunk time”, for instance, or the time taken for online shoppers to return unwanted items, may be on the rise, but the much-maligned high street may be due a resurgence this year.
Georges Berzgal, SVP & chief revenue office, global ecommerce at Pitney Bowes says a closer look at the data unveils both these and other trends that are starting to take shape in the industry in 2023.
Gen Z top the list of most lethargic returners
Pitney Bowes coined the term “trunk time” to describe how long it takes the average online shopper to return unwanted items. These delays are getting longer, driven by younger shoppers, suggesting that this trend will continue in 2023.
Our latest research reveals an increase in trunk time from 6.1 days in 2021 to 6.5 days last year, with Gen Z overtaking Millennials as online retail’s slowest returners. Gen Z trunk time increased by more than a day (from 7 to 8.1) in contrast to Millennials’ small rise from 7.6 to 7.7. While Baby Boomers and Gen X are timelier in their returns (with trunk times of 5.2 and 6.5 days respectively), these groups account for a smaller share of online shoppers.
This increase in trunk time is likely a result of customers’ calendars simply being busier, with post pandemic travel and socialising leaving less time for delivering returns to a drop-off location. These reasons, and their particular impact on young shoppers, mean that retailers will likely face even lengthier returns delays in 2023 and beyond, creating a drag on inventory costs, diminishing resale value, eroding margins, and engendering uncertainty around labour and space planning.
Youthful boost for brick-and-mortar retail
Younger shoppers’ sluggishness when returning unwanted items has grown at the same time as their interest in the in-store shopping experience – a trend that contradicts what many of us have come to expect.
For years now, the narrative around high street has been one of decline and desperation. According to one report, a record 16% of high street shops now stand empty, with one in every 20 vacant units having spent more than three years shuttered up. While the pandemic dealt a heavy blow, this only hastened a decline driven in no small part by the longer-term rise of online shopping.
But the younger generations may offer hope for high street, with recent BOXpoll research revealing that customers aged 18-35 are just as likely as those aged 65+ to have shopped online less in the 2022 holiday season than the year prior. One in four people in each of these groups gave this as their answer in our survey.
In addition, more than a quarter (28%) of shoppers in this 18-35 age group who shopped online less in this period did so due to their preference for the in-store experience, rather than more general belt tightening behaviour. They were second only to Baby Boomers in their preference for in-store shopping.
Certain shoppers favouring phones
Online retailers hoping to remain competitive in 2023 should ensure that their customer experience is fit not just for a digital age, but a mobile one.
Mobile phones are now the most popular platform for shopping online, even among those who do not shop online regularly. More than half (54%) of online shoppers prefer to use their phone, with another 30% making computers (laptop/desktop) the second most popular platform.
However, the race to go mobile is not happening evenly across the board. Women are driving the trend towards mobile shopping, with 62% naming their phone as their favourite means of online shopping, compared to 45% of men.
This, and the other issues highlighted here, will have a significant influence on the changing face of retail as we progress through another year.
Unboxing the year ahead
Our latest BOXpoll research reveals that young people will have a significant impact on the fortunes of the retail industry in the year ahead, potentially leading a revival of high street shopping while becoming increasingly likely to take time over online returns. Demographic data also reveals an interesting difference between men’s and women’s attitudes towards shopping on mobile phones.
These insights should serve as a reminder that customers are far from a homogenous group, and retailers will have to work hard in 2023 to attract and retain the ones they need most.
Georges Berzgal, SVP & chief revenue office, global ecommerce at Pitney Bowes