Why is pureplay online retail so rarely profitable?

I knew that this was doomed from the get-go
You thought that it was special, special

Circles, Post Malone

Recently I shared a post on social media that essentially was asking this perennial question: why is pureplay online retail often a very marginal business proposition? Why, in reality, does online mostly really only work as an omnichannel play? Which just goes to show that a physical environment is crucial to the profitability of omnichannel retail.

As we know, Amazon took 14 years to make a quarterly profit (in the meantime, it was effectively carried by its web engine services business.) The Iconic, a local business I admire, reported $370.5 million in revenue in 2018, a 38.3 per cent increase from the previous year, while still recording a loss (though a narrower one) of $18.3 million.

Its sales growth has been impressive over the last eight years; its profitability less so.

For the larger players in online retail, it is a relatively slow burn to scale. And scale, as these examples show, is not necessarily a panacea for the first 10 years and often longer.

Scale and capital are the enablers for these models.

For the smaller online-only retailers, conversely, it’s a very tough struggle. Cash flow may exist, however, as we know, profitability  is another matter.

Which brings me back to my initial question, why is pureplay online retail generally unprofitable?

On average, over 30 per cent of all product purchased online is returned to the retailer. For fashion retail, I believe it’s even higher. (For reference, physical stores have an average return rate of 8 to 9 per cent.)

At the same time, a large number of online retailers offer free freight – even for returns.

According to Meero research, return deliveries in the US will cost US$550 billion by 2020. In Australia, that figure could be as high as $10 billion, factoring in the costs of packaging, resorting, storing, etc.

Online retail is a scale game with high pressure on low returns, distribution economics and margin growth. And when you add in the costs around staffing, equipment and premises (The Iconic now employs over 1000 people), you begin to see the challenge of running a profitable pureplay online retail business.

Here’s a hypothetical example:

Imagine you’ve sold 1000 units at $30 (100 per cent mark-up /gross margin 50 per cent)

+$30,000

330 of those units are returned at an average cost of $10 per unit freight

-$3300 outgoing freight cost

Let’s say 30 per cent returned again                                              

-$1100 outgoing freight cost

And 30 per cent again


-$330 outgoing freight cost

Let’s also say that all this has added 5 per cent additional staffing consideration

-$6000 outgoing wages and salary costs

This all adds up to $10,730 in additional costs, which is around 33 per cent of sales.

Now this is a hypothetical example, assuming 100 per cent sell-through and presuming familiar ratio of returns, etc. (we can debate the cyclical nature of returns). However, it is apparent that returns and the cost of servicing them is a significant factor in online profit.

We should expect advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, adaptive technology and AR to make a difference in this critical area and contribute to the accuracy of purchase ratios and conversion rates, but it will take time.

Fashion and general merchandise conversion rates currently average around 2 to 4 per cent online. A much fuller rate of sales at a fuller operating margin is only really achieved by a higher margin and a much lower return ratio than is currently the case in online retail.

Physical shops, which give consumers the opportunity to use all their senses to make a purchase decision, and deliver an experience beyond range and convenience, are fundamental to the profitability of most online retail.

Expecting profitability in any other way is indeed circular thinking.

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