LONDON — Where have all the shoppers gone?
Burberry’s first-quarter retail sales may have outstripped analysts’ expectations — albeit by a small percentage — yet the shopping problem for Burberry, and so many of its luxury peers, remains.
First-quarter retail revenue was 423 million pounds, or $609 million. That figure was flat on an underlying basis and 4 percent higher than the corresponding quarter last year, due to the weaker pound.
Like-for-like sales in the three months to June 30 were down 3 percent, while new retail space contributed 3 percent to growth.
All three regions — Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas — notched low-single-digit percentage comparable-sales declines. All three had their reasons for underperforming — the crackdown on bribery in China; caution among U.S. department stores, and terrorism fears in Europe.
Those problems aren’t new, or unique to Burberry, but they’re certainly proving sticky.
Andrew Hall, analyst at Verdict Retail in London, said the Far East was a particular problem that Burberry’s incoming chief executive officer, Marco Gobbetti, needs to address immediately.
“Whilst sales declined across all three regions, a dire performance in Hong Kong and Macau stood out as a particularly stubborn thorn in the side of the luxury player,” Hall wrote on Wednesday. “One of Gobbetti’s priorities must be examining operations in these Far Eastern markets and considering new avenues for growth, especially given there has been a renewed crackdown on gift-giving in China, accompanied by the growing popularity of ‘daigous’ — overseas shoppers who buy luxury goods and ship them to China for clients.”
Hall added that Gobbetti’s experience at Céline — and the fundamental strengths of the Burberry brand — should serve him well.
In the trading statement, Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer and ceo, continued to describe the external environment as “challenging,” and said underlying cost inflation pressures persist. Bailey will relinquish his ceo title to Gobbetti next year, and take on the new one of president. He will remain in charge of the creative side of the business.
In the first quarter, Hong Kong showed “some improvement” compared to the fourth quarter of last year, but it continued to see a double-digit percentage decline in comparable sales, Burberry said.
In Mainland China, comparable sales were broadly unchanged year-on-year. Japan saw weaker tourism, offset in part by growth from domestic customers. Excluding Hong Kong and Macau, comparable sales in the first quarter in Asia-Pacific were positive.
During a call following the results, Carol Fairweather, Burberry’s chief financial officer who will be stepping down next year as part of a shake-up of top management, said the Americas region had a tough first quarter, with tourist spend down in the double digits. Tourists account for 15 percent of luxury spend in the region.
She said domestic demand in the U.S. has been “uneven,” while wholesale remains “challenging.”
As a result of those and other factors, Burberry is now projecting global wholesale revenue to be down by more than 10 percent at constant exchange rates in the six months to September 30. Burberry had previously said wholesale sales would see a 10 percent decline in the first half at constant rates.
“This reflects significantly tighter inventory control by U.S. wholesale customers, continued cautious ordering in other regions” and the “elevation of beauty distribution” in key markets, Burberry said.
Continental Europe remained depressed, in particular in France and Italy, with double-digit declines in sales to traveling luxury customers. The company said the declines were offset in part by growth from domestic consumers in all major markets.
The U.K., Burberry’s biggest market in the region, was the one bright spot. Burberry said sales improved in the final weeks of the quarter, to deliver mid-single-digit percentage comparable growth.
Brexit clearly provided a tailwind: Following the result of the June 23 referendum, the pound crashed, sending foreign tourists swooping on British shops to take advantage of cheaper prices. Although the pound later recovered, it is still trading at a discount to the euro and the dollar, and is expected to fuel retail sales at many British brands this summer.
Asked about the impact of Brexit on first-quarter sales, Fairweather said it was “too early to call the impact on shopper patterns,” adding that all of the first quarter had been positive in the U.K.
Burberry has certainly been basking in post-referendum glow. Due to the weaker sterling, the company now expects to see a foreign exchange bump of 90 million pounds, or $118 million, in profit before tax for the 2016-17 fiscal year. That figure compares with 50 million pounds, or $72 million, Burberry had projected in April.
The benefits of the weaker currency, Fairweather said, will far outweigh higher sourcing costs due to the weaker pound.
The foreign-exchange blessing would most likely be mixed, however. While international tourists to the U.K. will likely rush to capitalize on the weaker pound, those benefits may fade in the future, depending on what terms Britain exits the EU.
“Burberry’s U.K operations may well suffer from a reduced flow of wealthy tourists as travel to the U.K. becomes more regulated, making it imperative Burberry find a way of turning this evolving geopolitical drama to its advantage,” said Hall of Verdict Retail.
Regarding pricing, Fairweather said there would be no “knee-jerk” reaction to the weaker pound, and the company would wait and see where exchange rates settle before tweaking prices.
During the quarter, the company said fashion outperformed replenishment product, with apparel and accessories doing particularly well. Handbag sales were driven by the runway rucksack while lightweight outerwear was also a hit, in particular cashmere trenchcoats.
Burberry took pains to stress how seriously it’s been pursuing its new company strategy and austerity plan, which involves a heightened focus on local consumers; a smaller and more targeted product offer, and streamlined back-office operations.
On Wednesday, Fairweather confirmed that layoffs are in the pipeline, adding the company has entered into “formal consultations” with employee representatives. She declined to give any details. In the U.K., the process of laying off workers can be a long one, and consultations are an early step.
As for her own departure, Fairweather said that after 10 years, it was the right time to go. She will be replaced by Julie Brown, who will hold the new dual role of chief operating officer and cfo.
Later this year, the company will unveil a consumer app with an enhanced checkout facility, and it also plans to relaunch burberry.com in the fall, with more digital changes to come.
In the first quarter, mobile delivered the majority of the growth, with about 60 percent of traffic to Burberry’s online store coming via a mobile device. The company’s single inventory model was further expanded, with about 90 stores now live globally, improving stock availability for all online markets, Burberry said.