LONDON — Like the World War II generation of doughty Britons, Burberry is facing hard times with defiance and a plan: In a persistently difficult external environment, it’s aiming to drive top- and bottom-line growth with a mix of rationing and refocused investment.
A backdrop of falling sales and profits has brought out the stiff-upper-lip spirit in Burberry, which on Wednesday revealed a major new strategy that involves simplifying operations, saving money and shifting the focus away from tourists to locals and to its younger, digitally engaged fan base.
The aim is to deliver at least 100 million pounds, or $144 million, of cost savings by 2019, with some 20 million pounds, or $29 million, in savings expected this year. The company said it has already slashed more than 25 million pounds, or $37.8 million, in discretionary costs this year, according to plan.
Burberry is also intending to outperform luxury market growth, which is projected to be 2 to 3 percent in coming years. Thanks to the new strategy, the company is hoping to emerge as a leaner, more competitive operation and a paragon of omnichannel retailing.
But the stock market wasn’t thrilled with the group’s financial results: Losses widened during the day, with the stock closing down 3.4 percent to 11.04 pounds, or $15.97. All figures have been converted at average exchange rates for the periods to which they refer.
On Wednesday, Burberry’s chief creative and chief executive officer Christopher Bailey admitted that the difficult macroeconomic backdrop — the crisis in Hong Kong and Macau, declining Chinese tourism, terrorist attacks in European cities, changing consumer patterns and certain regions’ economic growth prospects — had forced the changes.
“Our industry is facing significant challenges, especially with near-term trading,” a bespectacled and composed Bailey told financial analysts and investors, many of whom have been skeptical about his ability to lead the company on both the creative and business fronts. “Today, external experts are predicting that sector growth over the next five years will be around 2 to 3 percent — down from 7 percent over the last five years. That is the reality of the world we are now operating in.”
Bailey called Burberry’s new targets “stretching — but achievable” and its new strategy “a real step change in our ambition,” with the aim of creating “a responsive, dynamic way of working.”
He laid out company’s new strategy as it reported a widely anticipated fall in 2015-16 profit before tax of 6.5 percent to 415.6 million pounds, or $628.2 million, from 444.6 million pounds. Attributable profit, after tax, fell 8 percent to 309.5 million pounds, or $469.8 million, while revenue dipped 1 percent on an underlying basis to 2.5 billion pounds, or $3.78 billion.
Comparable sales were down 1 percent, but rose 3 percent stripping out the impact of Hong Kong and Macau.
Many of the big luxury and fashion brands are struggling to sell in an increasingly uncertain climate, although Burberry has been hit particularly hard because of its exposure to China. A punishing macro-environment isn’t Burberry’s only problem. As reported earlier this month, the company is swollen and slow-moving compared to some of its peers.
According to a report published earlier this month by UBS, Burberry has about 15 percent more retail sales staff per directly operated store; 6 percent more headquarters staff, and 5 percent higher pay, per person, than its core peers. At the same time, its handbag pricing is about 14 percent lower than its competitors.
Much of Burberry’s existing strategy and structure were inherited by Bailey from the company’s previous ceo Angela Ahrendts. She exited the British company to join Apple Inc. as senior vice president of retail and online stores.
After conducting a major internal audit, Bailey said Burberry is now focused on tackling its inefficiencies, simplifying day-to-day operations, resizing and rebalancing itself for the future.
Although no layoffs were unveiled, they may be in the pipeline: Chief financial officer Carol Fairweather said the company is still reviewing the way it works and that will result in a headcount reduction over time.
During his presentation, Bailey declined to comment on recent press reports that he’s set to make a senior appointment, someone to help him with his day-to-day job. “I balance my work with a phenomenal team of people, some of whom are here today,” he said, adding that he would offer more specifics about the new strategy in due course.
As part of its overhaul, Burberry plans to alter the way it handles seasonal product and its approach to retail. The company will fine-tune its product offer and begin by slashing 15 to 20 percent of the assortment in the coming year, with more cuts to come. The aim is to bring Burberry in line with its luxury competitors.
The company is also planning to merchandise and promote seasonal products in a clearer way in-store, with a fierce focus on key products that best represent the brand’s “design attitude” and mood of the runway collections. At the same time, Burberry wants to ensure that each store has the right products for its climate and clientele — silk scarves rather than cashmere ones in places like Singapore.
“There will be less surrounding noise,” said Bailey of the new merchandising setup. Last year, Burberry began its consolidation exercise, revealing plans to unite its various labels under the single brand of Burberry and present its men’s and women’s collections together on the runway with everything available in-store and online as soon as the shows end.
On the product front, Burberry plans to beef up its opening price offer in order to “commercialize our digital followers” — or turn its 40 million social media fans from browsers into spenders.
From a retail point of view, the focus will move from “new space to productive space” — a strategy that Kering’s ceo François-Henri Pinault talked about in February for the brands he leads. Indeed, many luxury firms have maxed out their retail footprint and have realized the time has come for those shiny new units to start generating cash.
Fairweather said during the call that the company will open a net 15 stores in the current fiscal year, with planned capital expenditure of 150 million pounds, or $217 million, flowing toward store refurbishment, IT and digital growth, rather than new brick-and-mortar projects. About one-third of capital expenditure has been earmarked for investment in digital technology in the current year.
The company will embark on a “retail excellence” program to increase accountability of its staffers for sales and net margin through globally shared incentives and metrics. (UBS also said in its report that Burberry’s sales densities remain “materially below peers” with “volume and value” per retail selling staff at the bottom end of the brand’s peer group.)
As high-spending tourists dwindle in Europe and the U.S., Burberry plans to cultivate the local consumer with a “elevated and more personalized service,” and improving customer loyalty programs. It will also channel its energies into “a handful of key cities globally” — Bailey didn’t say which ones — where Burberry sees a concentration of wealth.
Despite the recent wobbles in that market, Burberry isn’t giving up on China: Bailey was clear that the country “will contribute a disproportionate amount of customers, both while traveling and increasingly at home. We have developed our strategies with this understanding of the landscape in mind.”
Burberry also plans to clean up its outlet network as it fine-tunes its in-store and online services and merchandise offer and will tighten relationships with wholesale partners.
Bailey said the improvements in retail productivity should drive about half of Burberry’s revenue growth over the next three years.
The new e-commerce strategy is set to drive about a third of growth in the coming years. The company plans to redesign and relaunch burberry.com in the fall and unveil a new customer app ahead of the holiday period in response to the surge in mobile sales. In the second half of fiscal 2015-16, mobile sales delivered the majority of growth at burberry.com.
In a bid to ramp up its digital sales and omnichannel abilities, Burberry will make it easier for customers to shuffle between its site and other retailers’ sites, and is trialing a “reserve-in-store” function online so that customers can pre-purchase goods at Heathrow Airport before taking a trip.
Although the stock price fell, feedback from the world of finance was positive.
Barclays analysts said it was good to see Burberry reacting to the tough environment “although we would not expect a strong share price bounce until we see a more positive top-line progression, which appears some way off,” it said.
Harsha Wickremasinghe, a member of the consumer team at the international M&A and debt advisory firm Livingstone, said Burberry’s plan “seems to make eminent sense. Focus on the basic retail disciplines of delivering exceptional service and product, whilst fully integrating digital to ensure a seamless omnichannel experience for customers. It begs the question as to why it has taken so long for Burberry to react.”
UBS said earlier this month it expects Burberry’s sales to recover in the second quarter of the current fiscal year, with like-for-like growth rising 4 percent.
On Wednesday, Burberry also revealed an increase in its full-year dividend of 5 percent to 37 pence, or 53 cents. It also plans to buyback shares of up to 150 million pounds, or $216 million, in the current year.