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Major warehouse landlord sees COVID-19 lockdown e-commerce gains 'here to stay'

The surge in online spending during national lockdowns enforced to delay the spread of the COVID-19 virus will have a lasting impact on consumer behavior, according to the CEO of Europe's largest listed warehouse landlord.

David Sleath, CEO of Segro PLC, said during a first-half earnings call that the levels of online spending reached in recent months are unlikely to hold as lockdown measures are lifted, but that shoppers' recent increased exposure to e-commerce would rapidly accelerate its growth.

"Many consumers have come to appreciate the convenience and the vast range of choice available online" as a result of the lockdowns, said Sleath. "And if you also assume a greater element of home-working is going to become the norm in the future, it's easy to see why elevated levels of e-commerce are here to stay."

SEGRO, a U.K.-based company with a portfolio of industrial and logistics properties throughout Europe, leases much of its space to e-commerce companies such as Inc. The blistering growth of online spending in recent years has seen demand for warehouse space soar, fueling a surge in rents and property prices.

SEGRO, whose share price has risen by more than 125% in the last five years, reported a 6.3% increase in net rental income for the first half of 2020. The value of the company's portfolio rose by 0.7% to £11.2 billion.

The data on e-commerce's growth during the first half of 2020 was "quite staggering," said Sleath. "E-commerce jumped across all markets, with penetration levels achieving in a matter of five weeks what might previously have been expected to take five years to achieve."

This rapid growth has already prompted e-commerce companies to plan for expansion, he added. "Internet retailers and their delivery partners are indeed investing in anticipation of further sustained growth," said Sleath. "So, too, are many traditional retailers that have to rapidly create capability to pick e-commerce orders in-store and who recognize that they will need to build out their e-commerce fulfillment capabilities in order to compete effectively and serve their customers in the future."

Sleath said that some e-commerce tenants are seeing daily demand equivalent to what they would process on "Black Friday," the last Friday in November during which retailers attract a surge in sales through widespread discounting. The event originated in the U.S. as a result of retailers discounting excess stock following the Thanksgiving holiday, and it has been adopted by retailers and consumers in the U.K.

Beyond e-commerce, the pandemic is likely to accelerate other structural trends, Sleath said. Supply chain optimization, greater warehouse automation, and the growth of digital data are set to strengthen as a result of the pandemic, which is encouraging SEGRO to be "even more confident in the future," he added.