Come summer, the international spotlight will shine on the United Kingdom when the 2012 Olympics begin in London.  While billions worldwide will be watching athletes striving to achieve their personal best, the coverage will also allow viewers to learn about the U.K. and its denizens.  For apparel brands and retailers, it could offer a glimpse into possible new selling opportunities.

WeConnectFashion, formerly InfoMat, reports that label recognition has made it easier than ever for American designers to enter a U.K. fashion market that traditionally has been dominated by British and European designers. U.K. apparel industry sales have grown on average 17% each year, and are now valued at over $40 billion.  At 25% growth, the specialized women’s wear sector shows the highest increase in sales over the same period.

More than three quarters of U.K. women (76%) profess they “love or enjoy” clothes shopping, according to the CCI & Cotton Incorporated Global Lifestyle Monitor Survey.  Overall, nearly six out of 10 U.K. consumers (59%) “love/enjoy” apparel shopping and the number jumps significantly among the younger set age 15-to-34 (70%).

Of course, the U.K. market is facing some uncertainty, which has tempered spending on discretionary items.

Analyst Clare Rayner, known as “The Retail Champion,” and founder of Retail Acumen, says the U.K. shopper is extremely cautious.

"... Much media coverage of a looming 'EuroZone Crisis' ... sounds sufficiently disturbing to make everyone think twice before 'splashing out."

-Clare Rayner,
The Retail Champion"

“With much media coverage of a looming ‘EuroZone Crisis,’ even if the consumer doesn’t quite understand what that may mean to them, it sounds sufficiently disturbing to make everyone think twice before ‘splashing out.'”

Although the European Central Bank is lending $639 billion to 523 banks across the Continent, there are no assurances any of the money will be lent to the private sector to spur growth and investment.

As a result, U.K. consumers have scaled back. A Deloitte LLP report states discretionary spending has been hit hard in recent months.

“Consumers are adapting their behavior to the current economic environment by trading down, staying in and postponing the purchase of big-ticket items,” says Nigel Wixcey, U.K. head of consumer business at Deloitte.  “Consumers are telling us they are deliberately making fewer impulse or spontaneous purchases. People are being forced to prioritize their spending habits.”

The Global Monitor finds 60% of women and 62% of those age 15-to-34 shop once a month for apparel.  The number drops to 37% for men and those age 35-to-55.

Half of all U.K. consumers say they still shop for apparel on impulse, the Global Monitor reports.  But eight out of 10 shop for clothes on sale, and men are significantly more likely than women to wait for markdowns (86% versus 74%).

With U.K. consumers watching their wallets and looking hard at discretionary purchases, many are turning to quality over quantity. After several years of chasing fast fashion, U.K. consumers are lately showing interest in better quality product.  More than 6 out of 10 consumers (64%) prefer to buy clothing basics over the latest styles, according to the Global Monitor.  And 64% are willing to pay more for better quality, with U.K. men even more willing to pay more for quality (70% versus 59%).

Rayner says a reputation for better quality apparel keeps Marks & Spencer a market leader with broad appeal.

“The key to M&S’s success is a strong reputation for quality and value for money,” Rayner says, adding the retailer offers, “Clothes suitable for men and women, and for almost every possible age group, budget and occasion. M&S is renowned for quality, great service, and a very strong e-commerce presence.”

Nearly 3 out of 10 consumers in the U.K. shop for most of their clothes at chain stores (29%), followed by department and specialty stores (14%), according to the Global Monitor.  Stores are also an important source for apparel ideas.  More than half of U.K. consumers get their clothing ideas from store displays/window shopping (54%), followed by what they already own and like (40%) and friends and colleagues they see regularly (36%).

No matter where they shop, consumers look to color as a top selling feature (91%), the Global Monitor shows, followed by quality (89%), style and price (88%) and durability (73%).   Additionally, more than eight out of 10 UK consumers (82%) prefer to forget about fashion and wear comfortable clothes.  That figure jumps to 91% among men and 93% among consumers age 35-to-55.

Given this penchant for comfort, it is hardly surprising that eight out of 10 U.K. consumers say cotton and cotton blends are the fibers best suited for today’s fashions, according to Global Monitor stats.   Additionally, 88% of consumers say cotton and cotton blends are the fibers they prefer for the clothing they wear the most.

American retailer Forever 21 acknowledges it is not a market leader in using sustainable materials.  But due to the U.K.’s interest in natural fibers, Linda Chang, head of marketing, told Marketing Week the chain is looking to work with more eco-friendly materials.  Forever 21 unveiled London flagship stores in 2011 in time to capitalize on the Olympics, and intends to have five total in the U.K., with two more in Europe before 2013.

Olympic events are always anticipated for revenue they produce.  Lloyds predicts the London Olympics will generate £10 billion ($13 billion U.S.) in revenue for the British economy.

“The retailers, and particularly those with a strong presence in London and South East England, are certainly hoping for an influx of global tourists,” Rayner says.  “At the moment the Olympics haven’t really caught the consumers’ imagination.  It is too early to tell if this will increase U.K. consumer spending – too much rests on more immediate issues such as the outcome of EuroZone financial issues and the impact that may have on the consumer.”