BERLIN — In the wake of a difficult 2015 and expectations of ongoing challenges in the year ahead, Hugo Boss is slowing the pace of its own retail expansion.
On Thursday, the German group said it would shutter 20 Hugo Boss stores in China, one of the brand’s current trouble spots, and that investments, especially those related to its own retail business, will be reduced to below 200 million euros, or $219.7 million at current exchange, compared to 220 million euros, or $244.3 million at average exchange, in 2015.
In a presentation accompanying the release of final 2015 financial results, Boss chief financial officer Mark Langer told analysts that “improvement of retail performance takes priority over further network expansion.” Less than 20 store openings are planned for the coming year, compared to 72 openings in 2015, which brought the Boss own-store count, including shops-in-shop and outlets, up to 1,113.
That said, the German group is definitely not abandoning its transformation over the last decade from a wholesale to an own-retail driven company, nor its efforts to improve the consumer’s in-store experience, with 100 stores slated for refurbishment this year. Own retail has powered the last six consecutive years of revenue growth, and further increases are forecast, but current top line and margin pressures have triggered a widespread process of review at the Metzingen-based fashion firm.
This has been a turbulent year for Boss, with falling sales in China and heavy discounting in the U.S. leading the company to reduce its earnings targets twice in the past six months. In February, Boss said due to weaker-than-expected, year-to-date retail sales in China and the U.S., the group was expecting a double-digit decline in adjusted operating profit in 2016. The group further abandoned its plan to achieve an adjusted operating margin of 25 percent by 2020. This was followed by the unexpected resignation of chief executive officer Claus-Dietrich Lahrs, who has not yet been replaced.
On Thursday, Boss said it expects 2016 sales to increase by a low single-digit percent rate, adjusted for currency effects, largely powered by its own retail business. Currency adjusted wholesale sales are forecast to drop by a mid to high single-digit percentage rate.
The group also unveiled strategic actions to improve its market position in the U.S. and China. To help counter discounting activity in Boss’ largest market — America — the firm is moving to limit wholesale distribution of the core Boss brand to shops-in-shop, and said it had reached an agreement to manage all eight of Boss shops-in-shop in Macy’s in the future.
The process of brand or category migration, which was successfully implemented in Europe in 2015, is now being rolled out in America where possible, with multibrand areas in department stores to now only feature Hugo, Boss Green and Boss Orange in place of the core Boss brand.
“We will have to accept sales declines in U.S. wholesale in 2016 [which currently contributes 41 percent of American Boss revenues] but in the long term, this will bring us back on a sustainable growth path,” Langer stated.
In China and some other Asian markets, Boss has moved to bring its pricing closer to the European level, reducing prices about 20 percent, and reported an initial positive upswing in demand. Alongside the previously mentioned store closures, Boss is nonetheless also upgrading its store network in China.
“As of April, we have 100 percent control of all our stores [in China], but you have to remember we inherited more than half of those stores currently operating from our former franchise partners. The 20 closures are mostly smaller stores, and we will also refurbish or relocate about 10,” Langer pointed out.
In final 2015 figures released Thursday, Boss reported net income dropped 5 percent to 319.4 million euros, or $354.7 million. Consolidated net income attributable to shareholders was down 4 percent.
In line with preliminary figures issued in January, group operating profit — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization before special items — for the year rose 1 percent to 594 million euros, or $695.6 million. This fell short of the group’s forecast of a 3 to 5 percent gain. Boss cited costs related to expansion and refurbishment of the retail network for denting profits.
Higher discounts, especially in the U.S. market, pressured the gross profit margin, which at 66 percent was 10 basis points below 2014’s level.
Driven by strong sales performance in Europe, group sales gained 9 percent to 2.81 billion euros, or $3.12 billion, as reported. Adjusted for currency effects, 2015 sales rose 3 percent. Europe grew sales 6 percent for the year, while currency-adjusted sales in the Americas and Asia-Pacific declined 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
Now representing 57 percent of group sales, the retail network generated a 15 percent sales gain, or 7 percent on a currency adjusted basis. This includes the group’s online business, where sales surged 22 percent, or 18 percent on a currency adjusted basis. Currency-adjusted retail comp sales were up 2 percent for the year.
At wholesale, currency-adjusted sales slipped 3 percent.
It was a “good year for Boss women’s wear under Jason Wu,” with the women’s fashion booking a double-digit sales gain. Now generating 11 percent of group sales, the company said it can foresee increasing women’s wear’s share of sales to at least 15 percent by 2020.
In addition to the ongoing problems in the U.S. and China and the search for a new ceo, analysts have suggested the key issue facing Boss is whether the premium brand should continue to push its luxury aspirations.
In the current environment, Langer said Boss would be taking a “pragmatic” approach to the “gradual elevation of the core Boss brand. We will strengthen and expand the top end, like adding the full canvas range, but stay true to our roots, emphasizing premium and accessible luxury in stores more. There could be a rebalance between luxury and premium, wherever it helps performance,” he stated.
But he company has no plans to alter the current price span, with entry-level suits in representative markets like France, for example, starting at 600 euros, or about $659, to 1,000 euros, or $1,098 at current exchange, and then moving upward with full canvas and made-to-measure offerings.
In the year ahead, Boss plans to actively step up its digital activities, and in the second quarter of 2016 will bring the execution of its online business in Europe in-house.
In mid day trading, the Hugo Boss share was trading up 1.76 percent at 54.96 euros on Xetra, the Frankfurt Boerse’s electronic exchange.