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Apparel Drives US Retail Ecommerce Sales Growth

2011 brought bigger-than-expected growth to a maturing market

March 22, 2012

Online sales of apparel and accessories are now growing faster than any other ecommerce product segment, and the category is poised to help US retail ecommerce sales grow 15.4% to $224.2 billion in 2012, after stronger-than-expected sales took the market to $194.3 billion last year, according to a new report by eMarketer.

eMarketer estimates online sales of US apparel and accessories—a product type for which shoppers’ desire to touch, feel and try on items before making a purchase was long seen as a deterrent to online sales—will grow 20% to $40.9 billion in 2012, up from $34.16 billion in 2011. Online sales of books, music and videos are expected to grow 18% to $20.35 billion this year, after increasing 20% to $17.2 billion in 2011.

US Retail Ecommerce Sales, by Product Category, 2010-2016 (billions)

This is the first time eMarketer has created a US retail ecommerce forecast for each product category.

The apparel and accessories category’s gains are attributed primarily to retailers’ improved methods for displaying products online, as well as policies that make online purchasing of apparel, in particular, less of a guessing game.

“Online merchandising and visualization have come a long way,” said Jeffrey Grau, eMarketer principal analyst and author of the new report, “US Retail Ecommerce Forecast: Entering the Age of Omnichannel Retailing.” “Retailers continue to increase the scale of their ecommerce operations, particularly by investing in online sales platforms that display products and convert shoppers more effectively; apparel sales have benefited more than any other category. Apparel has become an online success due largely to easy and free returns, innovative visualization tools and the presence of customer reviews.”

US Apparel and Accessories Retail Ecommerce Sales, 2010-2016 (billions, % change and % of total retail ecommerce sales*)

Even with apparel and accessories’ growth, however, computers and consumer electronics remains the largest single category of online spending. The tech-focused product segment will grab a nearly 22% share of ecommerce sales this year and continue to grow as a percentage of the annual total through 2016. On the other end of the spectrum, online food and beverage sales will grow 17% in 2012, but remain the smallest US ecommerce category with expected sales of just $5.09 billion in 2012.

US Retail Ecommerce Sales Share, by Product Category, 2010-2016 (% of total)

eMarketer previously forecast that the overall US retail ecommerce market would grow 13.7% to $188.1 billion in 2011, and grow a further 11.3% to $209.3 billion in 2012. The upward revision is the result of several positive signals related to ecommerce and the economy as a whole, including stronger-than-expected figures reported by the US Department of Commerce for ecommerce sales in 2011, particularly in Q4, as well as multiple reports suggesting that consumer optimism, homebuilding and the number of people willing to buy goods online is growing, while unemployment is declining slightly.

US Retail Ecommerce Sales, 2010-2016 (billions and % change)

eMarketer forms its US retail ecommerce forecast through a meta-analysis of research estimates from firms that track ecommerce sales, data from its benchmark source, and reported revenues from major online retailers. eMarketer also conducts interviews with industry executives who provide perspective on the ecommerce sales trends. eMarketer benchmarks its retail ecommerce sales figures against US Department of Commerce data, for which the last full year measured was 2011. These figures exclude travel and ticket purchases, but include sales made on mobile devices and tablets.

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