LONDON — The Mainland Chinese are still shopping but their spending habits are changing rapidly — and the shift has taken a further toll on Burberry Group. The British brand saw second half revenue shrink by 1 percent in the six months to March 31, on the heels of a flat first half.
Sales in the six months were 1.41 billion pounds, or $2.1 billion at average exchange, marred by a steady deterioration in Hong Kong; a sharp downturn in Continental Europe, and uneven demand in the U.S., where Burberry sells mostly to a domestic audience.
After dropping 7.9 percent in midday trading, Burberry stock closed down 3.6 percent at 12.96 pounds, or $18.45 at current exchange.
Burberry said in the trading update that comparable retail sales were down 2 percent in the second half, having dipped 5 percent in the fourth quarter after a flat third quarter. Stripping out the impact of Hong Kong and Macau, second-half comparable retail sales would have risen 1 percent.
Wholesale revenue fell 1 percent on an underlying basis, in line with earlier guidance. Worldwide, clients have become more cautious, the company said.
Carol Fairweather, Burberry’s chief financial officer, said during a conference call that the external environment continues to be challenging for luxury goods players, and that Chinese spend globally had slowed in the third and fourth quarters.
Comparable sales in Hong Kong declined by more than 20 percent for the third successive quarter. Fairweather said the trend was not Burberry-specific, but a sector-wide issue caused by mainland Chinese tourists opting to shop elsewhere in Asia.
“Hong Kong is the highest-margin market in the world and footfall, sector-wide, is down 30 percent,” she said, adding that Burberry’s stores in the region remain profitable. In keeping with the climate, Burberry plans to “re-evaluate” the rent it pays as leases come up for renewal and, as reported, has already given up one floor of its two-story Hong Kong flagship.
Hours after Burberry unveiled its second-half update, Barclays offered up more grim news about Chinese spending.
Using the latest figures from the tax-free tourism company Global Blue, Barclays said that, in March, Chinese global spending “fell deeply into negative territory for the first time,” with a minus 24 percent decline after a 5 percent uptick in February and an 11 percent rise in January.
Barclays said Chinese spending in the Asia-Pacific region also declined by minus 6 percent after strong double-digit increases in January and February. In Europe, Chinese spending plummeted 35 percent year-on-year in March. “The overall growth of the Chinese consumer globally has slowed, and remains a concern,” the bank said.
While demand in Hong Kong has been on the wane since the city was gripped by violent pro-democracy protests in late 2014, the decline in Europe was the big surprise: Fairweather acknowledged that the slowdown “may have been exacerbated” by the tragic events in Paris in November, although factors including new biometric visa requirements in Europe also contributed to the decline.
Burberry added that the U.K. and the Middle East, which is grouped with Europe on Burberry’s balance sheet, remained “difficult” throughout the half.
On a more positive note, the company saw midsingle-digit growth in mainland China in the second half, as well as growth in Korea and Japan, although the Asia-Pacific region as a whole was broadly flat.
Fairweather said Burberry now has 63 stores in mainland China and the focus going forward would be on polishing the retail offer in Beijing and “elevating” the store portfolio in key markets. She added that Burberry, which recently terminated its longtime license in Japan and began rolling out its own stores, has a “long-term strategy” for the company.
“We have seen great growth on a tiny base,” she said.
The U.S. also proved a tricky market in the second half, with the Americas region as a whole contracting 1 percent on a reported basis, and 3 percent on an underlying one.
Burberry said demand from U.S. domestic customers, who represent 85 percent of sales in the region, was “uneven” throughout the six months, while spend by the traveling luxury consumer remained down by a double-digit percentage, likely due to the stronger U.S. dollar.
Fairweather said that U.S. department stores were also finding market conditions “pretty challenging.”
Overall, sales of women’s and men’s wear both contracted by 3 percent, while accessories edged up 1 percent, with bestsellers including the new leather and nylon rucksack, scarves and ponchos. Children’s wear and beauty grew in the double digits.
Overall beauty revenue was up 13 percent on a reported basis and 10 percent underlying, driven by the sell-in of Mr Burberry, the new male fragrance that launched earlier this month, and by further product extensions around the signature My Burberry juice. Fairweather said the company would be further expanding the Burberry color cosmetics line at Sephora, both online and in-store.
Asked about the departure of Simona Cattaneo, Burberry’s head of beauty who is joining Coty Inc. later this year, and its impact on the beauty division, Fairweather said: “Simona has been a tremendous asset, and helped us to position our beauty business. We wish her well, and she leaves us in good shape.”
Asked whether, as some observers have speculated, Burberry might now return to a licensing model for beauty — rather than preserve its new in-house business — Fairweather said: “There is nothing to comment on today. We continue to build our beauty pillar and are pleased with what we are seeing in the business.”
Regarding Burberry’s new-format runway show in September, when the company plans to sell in-season looks in-store and online immediately after the lights go down, Fairweather said the move was more than a commercial decision.
“The runway represents a small percentage of sales, less than five percent, and this decision is very much about the brand responding to consumer sentiment and change in the market,” she said.
Looking to the 2016-17 fiscal year, the company said adjusted profit before tax will be “around the bottom of the range” of analysts’ expectations, currently about 405 million pounds, or $577 million, as the “environment remains challenging and underlying cost inflation pressures persist.” Currency tailwinds are set to underpin that figure in the coming year.
Barclays said in its report on Burberry that “good news was hard to find in Q4 except for foreign exchange, which will have a 60 million pounds, or $85 million, benefit in 2017.” The bank said it cut its estimates for 2017 earnings per share by 8 percent, in line with guidance, and it awaits the cost strategy outline at the results presentation in May.
Fairweather said that Burberry continues to focus on reducing discretionary costs, and had met its target of saving upwards of 25 million pounds, or $36 million, this year as sales have slowed.
She said the company has not been hiring new people, is keeping an eye on travel and expenses, and is “looking at what further savings we can deliver.”
In the statement issued earlier in the day, Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative and executive officer, said the company was “making good progress with developing enhanced future productivity and efficiency plans.”
Burberry is set to elaborate on those plans on May 18, when it issues its profit figure for the year ended March 31.