In Freefall: COVID-19 and Retail Sales

This article is translated and republished from the original article in German by Inga Fechner, economist at ING.

Chart of the Week

Numerous restrictions have been in place for over a week to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Schools and stores are closed. Places that tend to be bustling with people, especially when the weather is pleasant, are now eerily empty. It is no surprise that sales in the retail sector have plummeted, as our chart of the week shows.

Daily turnover in Germany and Austria (% change compared to the previous week)

Source: Suburbia, ING Economic & Financial Analysis

While extensive restrictions have been in effect in Austria since March 16, which were announced on March 13, the German government took a little longer to act. Yet, at the same time, public life was grinding to a halt. People’s increasing adoption of social distancing is clearly evident in retail sales since the weekend of 13th March, as we determined from data from Suburbia. Turnover across restaurants, hotels and leisure venues dramatically dropped over the weekend, compared to the previous weekend. 

The restrictions are still in effect, at least until Easter, and will continue to be a problem for numerous economic sectors. Fiscal support measures by governments and central banks are an important step in cushioning the impact of the slump. However, the impact cannot be completely reversed. At least for this year, we will see negative growth for the first time since the financial crisis for many economies.  

Do French people love their lovers or mothers more?

France is renowned as a nation of romantics. So with Valentine’s Day around the corner, we wanted to see if this reputation is justified. 

We looked into our luxury cosmetics and fragrances dataset* to compare sales in the periods leading up to Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Outside of Christmas, these are all historically the most popular times of year for fragrance purchases.

When surveyed before Valentine’s Day back in 2016, 69% of French people said they weren’t even planning to celebrate it. But it appears attitudes have shifted since then… 

Our data reveals that French people spend more on their significant others than they do on their mothers or fathers. The difference isn’t marginal either – Valentine’s Day sales are a whopping 39% higher than Mother’s Day sales! 

And while news reports show Father’s Day spending continues to trail far behind Mother’s Day, our data shows just the opposite with 34% higher sales for the former. 

What’s interesting is that Valentine’s Day sales have steadily increased year on year, while sales for the other two occasions have experienced dips in previous years. 

Of course, there could be other reasons to explain these gaps. People may be splashing out on flowers or a nice evening out instead. Buying habits are also shifting as millennials increasingly seek experiential gifts for Mom like spa treatments, according to retail consulting firm Unity Marketing

As for Valentine’s Day, we expect the boom in fragrance sales around Valentine’s Day to continue. A perfume may not be as enduring as the memory of an experience – but at least it lasts longer than flowers and candy!

About our data:

Suburbia partners with companies in the payments and retail industries to create data sets that track anonymized consumer purchases across Europe, delivering a daily view into some of the world’s biggest consumer brands. For insights on luxury cosmetics and fragrances trends, Suburbia’s data set covers sales in over 130 retail outlets in France.

Fever-Tree: The European Thirst for Tonic

In the last ten years, gin has enjoyed a revival – it has even been dubbed the “ginaissance”. Premium tonic maker Fever-Tree has benefited strongly from this trend, growing rapidly along with sales of high-end gin. 

While Fever-Tree is the UK’s market leader for mixers, it has found its sales growth losing its fizz in its saturated home market. To live up to high growth expectations, it must look abroad, especially with looming risks of a post-Brexit consumer slump.

Growth of Fever-Tree in Europe

Analysts have suggested that it’s getting harder for Fever-Tree to grow its market share in the UK since it already dominates nearly half of the on-trade – the industry term for bars, restaurants and pubs.

On the bright side, continental Europe is the group’s second largest region in terms of revenue and sales are increasing in double digits every year (16% in 2019). There could be even more room for growth. According to Statista, eight out of 10 countries with the highest per capita consumption of gin are in Europe. Spain takes the top spot, Belgium is second while the Dutch, who helped to popularize gin, rank third. 

Looking into our CPG data*, which covers point-of-sale transactions in on-trade channels in Europe, we have indeed seen a strong surge in demand for Fever-Tree over the last two years. 

Perfect pairing

We also turned to our data to see which gins are most frequently paired with Fever-Tree tonic.

Unsurprisingly, it’s most frequently served with top-shelf gins like Hendrick’s, which arguably sparked the craft gin craze. 200-year-old Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire are the second and third most popular brands drunk with Fever-Tree, respectively. Relatively young brands like Monkey 47 and Brockmans round up the list. No generic gins make the cut here! 

While Fever-Tree was the first mover in the premium mixer category, the competition is heating up as me-too brands start popping up. Now let’s see if it will continue to be the top brand on everyone’s lips at the bar this summer. 

About our data:
Suburbia partners with companies in the payments and retail industries to create data sets that track anonymized consumer purchases across Europe, delivering a daily view into some of the world’s biggest consumer brands. For insights on consumer packaged goods (CPG) trends, Suburbia’s data set covers sales in over 10,000 on-trade channels across six countries in Europe.

The Best S(m)elling Fragrances in France

The French may take pride in their famously pungent cheeses but there’s another aromatic product that brings in more money: designer fragrances.

In 2017, France exported US$4.8 billion worth of fragrance products to the global market, compared to $3.7 billion of cheese. 

After all, France has been the breeding ground for many iconic names in the industry: Chanel, Christian Dior and Frederic Malle amongst many others. In terms of domestic sales, high tourist arrivals have also helped to boost spending in this segment. In fact, Chinese tourists spend more on cosmetics and fragrances in France than they do on clothing, food or handbags. 

While France didn’t invent perfumes, it did help to popularize them and make them a lingering success. It started with perfumed gloves, favored by royalty and the rich, during the Renaissance period. Perfume came into its own and took off in the 18th century. When Napoleon was in power, it was said that he had a standing order with his perfumer to deliver 50 bottles a month!

Fast forward to the present day, when the global perfume market has grown into a powerhouse valued at over US$30 billion annually. As France is the biggest market in Europe for cosmetics and fragrances, and the fourth largest globally, what is selling well here can be a good indicator of global trends.

So we took a look at our cosmetics and fragrances dataset to sniff out 2019’s hardest-working scents in Europe’s perfume capital, along with other interesting facts:

Top-selling fragrances

  1. Lancôme La Vie est Belle 
  2. Dior Sauvage 
  3. Givenchy L’Interdit 
  4. Dior Eau Sauvage
  5. Dior J’Adore
  6. Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male
  7. Bleu de Chanel 
  8. Paco Rabanne 1 Million 
  9. Dior Joy 
  10. Chanel Coco Mademoiselle 

From the list above, we can see that 4 out of the top 10 fragrances sold are produced by Dior. This success was reflected in the Christian Dior Group’s last financial report, which credited a double-digit jump in revenue to the strong performance of businesses like Perfumes & Cosmetics. 

What else is interesting to note here? (Apart from the fact that the most successful fragrances have French names!) Old is gold, and classics still reign. Even though it seems like we are assailed by a new fragrance launch or campaign every other day, the best-selling list is actually dominated by scents that have been around for a while. For instance, Dior unveiled Eau Sauvage in 1966! Joy, a relative newcomer on the list that was introduced in 2018, was Dior’s first major perfume launch in 20 years. Likewise for Sauvage, which marked Dior’s first new cologne in a decade.

This shows that while successful fragrance launches can be few and far between – once a scent is beloved, it can be a moneymaker for years and decades to come.

Men’s fragrance segment nothing to sniff at

A study in 2017 showed that women purchase a new fragrance as often as once a month while men buy it only once or twice a year, typically for the purpose of replenishment. However, our data reveals that nearly half of the top 10 fragrances sold are men’s colognes, suggesting that buying patterns may be shifting.

As you can expect, sales typically spike right before special occasions like Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day – but growth remains steady even outside key gift-giving times. It could be that men are increasingly viewing fragrance as a grooming essential rather than a luxury, leading to greater usage.

While we previously wrote about waning interest in Dior Sauvage, it still held on to the top spot for the year’s most popular masculine fragrance. Its closest rival in terms of sales is the similar-sounding Eau Sauvage.

Scents and dollars

The same scent can come at several price points based on whether it is an eau de toilette (EDT) or an eau de parfum (EDP). The key difference is in the concentration of scented oils. 

An EDT has a 5-15% concentration, which means it can last for a few hours after you spritz it on. Meanwhile, an EDP has a concentration of 20-30%, making it much more intense, long-lasting – and  expensive. The scent that lingers on in the elevator long after its wearer has left? That’s probably an EDP. 

As EDTs are cheaper, they have been the most popular fragrance type in many markets for a long time. The average price for an EDP is 74 euros, about 15% more expensive than the average EDT. But that trend is shifting as shoppers splash out for – and splash on – more concentrated scents. Based on our data, nearly two-thirds of the top 30 fragrances sold last year were EDPs. 

About our data:

Suburbia partners with companies in the payments and retail industries to create data sets that track anonymized consumer purchases across Europe, delivering a daily view into some of the world’s biggest consumer brands. For insights on luxury cosmetics and fragrances trends, Suburbia’s data set covers sales in over 130 retail outlets in France.

The History of Big Data: From BC to AD

Big data may be the big buzzword of our time, but the concept goes back hundreds of years.

By definition, big data refers to any data sets that are too large or complex to be easily dealt with. In the 1600s, John Graunt, the father of modern demography, also worked with huge, overwhelming amounts of data about the population of London. 

But it all starts with data collection, and we know this began millennia earlier with the practice of census-taking. 

Hunting and gathering (of data)

A census is basically a way of gathering information on a population, and it’s not restricted to people. The earliest known census was conducted in Babylon in about 3800BC. Records suggest that the census counted the numbers of people and livestock, along with quantities of butter, milk, honey and vegetables.

These numbers were recorded on clay tablets although unfortunately, none of the raw data has been preserved. The Daily Telegraph muses that it could be because “the Babylonians probably sent the tablets through the equivalent of clay shredders to make sure their privacy was protected!”

The Bible also relates several accounts involving censuses, the most well known being the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph had gone for a Roman census. 

Censuses were used by the ancient Romans solely for the purpose of determining taxes. A shame they didn’t do more with the data – because maybe they could have used it to predict the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire! 

Data of the dead

In the early 1600s, a London hatmaker named John Graunt tapped into overlooked data sources to produce remarkable insights about life, health and mortality in his city. 

He started studying death records that had been kept by London parishes and compiled fifty years of data into his book, Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality. This is also the first known table of public health data, and its timely arrival coincided with the waves of bubonic plague that were sweeping the region.

His report painted a vivid picture of how Londoners lived and died, and he was the first person to give an estimate of the city’s population. He even predicted the percentage of people who would live to each successive age and their life expectancy year by year. But the data he collected was not always thorough or accurate – for instance, Graunt observed that syphilis was often covered up as the cause of death. 

All these records were publicly available but before Graunt, no one had thought about aggregating and analyzing the information in this way. His work helped to surface valuable insights that would have been instrumental for the city in mapping disease outbreaks and making better decisions. 

AD: The rise and rise of alternative data

Fast forward to present day, when the world is practically drowning in data. Yet we are meaningfully using only a fraction of it.

Businesses, investors and research firms are mostly guided by traditional data – that is, the usual government or company-issued data such as earnings and economic reports. But the frequency and depth of such data are often insufficient for identifying opportunities and emerging trends. That’s why more are turning to data outside the traditional realm, that is ‘alternative data’. 

It’s growing fast, with the number of alternative data providers tripling in the last three years alone. But the concept itself isn’t really new. 

There’s an oft-told tale about Walmart founder Sam Walton who would count cars in parking lots as a barometer of business, and once was so absorbed in the task that he crashed his car into the back of a Walmart truck. Now this can be done more easily and at scale with satellite imagery. But the moral of the story is that patience isn’t necessarily a virtue when it comes to business or investing – after all, why wait for the quarterly sales report when you can monitor foot traffic or point-of-sale purchases in real time? 

At its essence, alternative data is any data that is under the radar and underutilized. This data doesn’t need to be exotic or complicated. You could say that over 300 years ago, Graunt was also tapping into alternative data by examining mortality records.

While Graunt had to crunch through all this data manually, we now have the ability to process vast amounts of complex information pretty quickly. That enables businesses and investors to glean insights faster so that they can act on them before their competitors do. 

But there is one issue Graunt would have run into today…

What syphilis can tell us about privacy

As Graunt had astutely observed that syphilis deaths were likely under-reported due to social stigma, people suffering from the venereal disease in that era probably wouldn’t have been thrilled about such information being exposed. 

We live in a pro-privacy world now, where high-profile scandals have made consumers increasingly distrustful of companies handling personal data. Ensuring data privacy and security should rightly be a top concern for every company. 

It is for this reason that a clear and hard distinction must be made between personal data and non-personal data. While it is legally and morally wrong to expose an individual suffering from syphilis, there’s a huge public benefit in tracking and aggregating anonymized cases. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the importance of national syphilis surveillance to understand how it spreads so it knows how to focus prevention efforts.

While most companies may not be dealing with matters of public health, it’s imperative that they handle their customers’ data with just as much sensitivity. Suburbia offers point-of-sale transaction data but we make sure our data sets are stripped of all personal details to begin with. This means we take it one step further than simply anonymizing the data – it’s not just about masking John Doe’s identity, but leaving any demographic information out completely.

The future of data

More businesses will find ways of harnessing the treasure trove of underutilized insights hidden in plain sight all around us. The Internet of Things means that the variety of data available to us will grow exponentially. 

In turn, this data will become more accessible as our ability to harvest usable information from big data improves by leaps and bounds with advancements in AI and machine learning.

At the same time, the growing privacy movement will shake up the advertising practices and business model of many companies. But with constraints comes creativity and new inputs for decision-making.

This will drive more companies to embrace and leverage alternative data. If investors are able to use it to generate higher stock returns, why can’t companies use it to improve their operations and grow their business? 

Ultimately, alternative data won’t be so ‘alternative’ in the future, as data becomes the next frontier for competition. Those who are able to tap into new sources to generate insights will be the victors in this brave new world awash with data – and those who fail will end up victims of their own complacency, much like the ancient Romans.