E-commerce is marching relentlessly towards a 20 percent share of specialty apparel sales and the trend only appears to be accelerating.

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Michael McNamara, vice president of MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, told attendees that the online share of specialty apparel sales last year stretched to 18.1 percent from 16.4 percent in 2010. The figure, according to MasterCard’s monitoring of all U.S. sales activity by cash, check or credit card, stood at 10.9 percent as recently as 2007.

“Shifting 2 percent [a year] in a mature industry like this, actually jumping channels — that’s a huge number and it’s happening every year.”

He expects that online’s share of specialty apparel revenue will top 20 percent for January and is likely to go higher during 2012, when online sales could top $200 billion, $45 billion alone for the November-December holiday period. In 2011, e-commerce was up 14.9 percent to $37.17 billion during the holiday season, according to ComScore.

While the growth is being prompted primarily by growing acceptance of online shopping, McNamara noted that gas prices were contributing as well. Currently averaging about $3.36 a gallon, the MasterCard official said they could hit $4 by Memorial Day. Even at current levels, the high price of driving contributed to a 3.5 percent reduction in the amount of gasoline pumped in December versus the prior-year month. That contributed to a 29.3 percent jump in specialty apparel sales online on Black Friday and a less dramatic but still robust 17.1 percent increase in the category last year.

McNamara described the online channel as “where the sales growth is, where the margin growth is” and encouraged attendees to emphasize the digital domain in planning their businesses. “Take these numbers with you when you’re making your business cases,” he suggested.

He said retail sales generally topped fairly conservative expectations last year but that brisk headwinds would be confronted in 2012. The strength of luxury sales held up in 2011. He said luxury’s strength could be jeopardized by the European debt crisis, which might limit tourism in the eastern U.S., as well as the flat performance of the U.S. stock market in 2011.

Andy Mantis, MasterCard Advisors’ senior vice president of merchant information services, shared pointers on how to use his firm’s diagnostic tools to optimize sales results following McNamara’s presentation.

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