LONDON — Call it a tale of two continents.
The plummeting euro and the pumped-up dollar may be bad for American firms that rely heavily on international business, but the currency swings have unlocked new and lucrative opportunities for European luxury companies, retailers and bargain-hunting tourists alike.
Brands including Tod’s Group SpA and Salvatore Ferragamo SpA saw their holiday sales in Europe rocket due to tourists — in particular, the Chinese — taking advantage of the weaker euro, while companies including Burberry have already begun to reap the benefits of a currency — in this case the pound — that has fallen in value against the dollar. Meanwhile, U.S. firms from Avon to VF Corp. are already suffering the squeeze from the stronger dollar.
On the plus side, airport retailers, hotel groups and the tax-free shopping firm Global Blue are bracing themselves for a wave of Chinese and U.S. tourism to crash over Europe this year and next, as the American economy gains steam and the dollar strengthens.
Morgan Stanley said in an FX Pulse report published in late January it expects the euro to be worth $1.05 by the end of this year, and $1 by 2016. The last time the euro and the dollar were matched in value was more than a decade ago, in late 2002.
The economists at Barclays, meanwhile, are looking at a euro exchange rate of $1.07 by the end of the year, while Wells Fargo Securities is slightly less bullish, with a projection of $1.17 by year’s end.
The euro closed at $1.143 against the dollar on Monday, and the pound was worth $1.536.
Retailers are at the ready for the bulked-up greenback.
Selfridges in London has just unveiled a customer services space catering specifically to the needs of foreign tax-free shoppers. The store said it invested “multimillions” on the new fourth-floor space, which has its own Tax Refund Lounge, two Tax Free processing halls, and VIP areas for high-net-worth individuals.
The store has even built an unadorned “Faith Room” where customers of any religion can worship or meditate during the shopping day. The store said its international business has grown consistently over recent years, and the new space is set to accommodate future growth.
Harvey Nichols is marking Chinese New Year, which starts Wednesday, with a special edit of products across fashion, beauty and food, and working with the top Chinese chef Ching-He Huang on a special “Yin Yang” menu at its restaurants.
The store, owned by the Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon, cited statistics from the tourist shopping service Premier Tax Free that 23,000 Chinese visitors are expected to come to the U.K. this month, an increase of 26.1 percent on last year.
According to Global Blue, Chinese tourist spending in Europe overall grew 18.3 percent in 2014, with a spike of 49.4 percent year-on-year in the month of December. In the U.K., the Chinese were the top-spending nationality in 2014. Their spend increased 20 percent year-on-year in December.
“The price differential is widening between China and Europe,” said Laura Levy, a luxury analyst at Barclays in London. “It’s about 50 percent now, compared with 30 to 35 percent historically, which means it’s much cheaper for the Chinese to shop in Europe.”
Over the past year, the yuan has risen 17 percent against the euro, and Levy added that while the exchange rate will certainly support Chinese tourism spending in Europe, “we could see some price increases to balance that.”
Earlier this month, HSBC said in a report that the Chinese now represent “close to a third” of all luxury sales, with more than two thirds of their purchasing happening outside China.
The HSBC report added that the sharp rises of the Chinese yuan and U.S. dollar against the euro and pound over the past six months and the ongoing political tensions in Hong Kong are reshaping tourism patterns and driving more Chinese tourists abroad, to Europe and other parts of Asia.
The Chinese are not the only ones taking advantage of a weaker euro and pound.
Gordon Clark, country manager, U.K. and Ireland, at Global Blue, said the U.S. is already one of the top 10 spending nations in the U.K., with an average 575 pounds ($876) a transaction. “As the exchange rates sway in their favor, American shoppers will flock in,” he told WWD.
During last month’s men’s wear shows in Paris, Ahmet Ocal, buying director of men’s merchandise group for Turkey’s Beymen, said he planned to spend more in Paris than he had in previous years. “We believe the weak euro will have a positive impact on the local customers. Retail prices will be relatively low, which will affect the sell-through positively as well,” he said.
Over the past year, the dollar has risen about 17.5 percent against the euro and almost 10 percent against the pound. Much of that growth was achieved in January, an extraordinary month from a macroeconomic point of view: Europe slipped into deflation, the price of Brent crude oil dropped below $50 a barrel for the first time in nearly six years, and the Swiss National Bank made a shock decision to de-peg the franc from the euro, sending the Swiss currency soaring and threatening exports.
In addition, the European Central Bank launched a $1.3 trillion fiscal stimulus plan to jump-start the region’s languid economy while Greece voted for the anti-austerity Syriza party, which is aiming to renegotiate the country’s debt — without much success so far. The election result punched the euro down temporarily to an 11-year low of $1.11.
As Greece — now plagued with fresh credit downgrades and mounting bailout costs — struggles with lenders to broker a debt restructuring deal, fears are escalating that the country could exit the euro zone. British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month held a special meeting at Downing Street to discuss the possibility of a Greek exit from the zone, Britain’s largest trading partner.
Even with all the uncertainty, Europe’s luxury brands and retailers are rejoicing.
Not only do Europe’s luxury firms benefit from plumped up quarterly reports due to favorable currency translations, but a significant portion of their costs are euro-based, while nearly half of sales are in dollars or dollar-pegged currencies.
The exception is Switzerland, which now has a powerful currency that will weigh on costs and dent exports. Compagnie Financière Richemont revealed last month at the SIHH show in Geneva that prices for its watch and jewelry brands such as Cartier and Piaget would rise 5 to 7 percent in euros. Swatch said some of its brands’ prices would rise by 5 to 10 percent.
Kim Gray, Heathrow’s head of retail strategy, said the airport has been grooming itself in a bid to better serve the high-spending international shopper.
Heathrow Terminal 5 carries 22 fashion brands, and the month of December alone saw a string of one-off openings including Louis Vuitton’s first European airport store, a 3,240-square-foot unit; the first stand-alone boutique for Cartier inside an airport, and a Diane von Furstenberg “Wrap Shop” at Harrods, a pop-up store.
Gray said the airport’s Chinese New Year celebrations are getting bigger each year, with Chinese speakers on the airport floor guiding tourists to shops and Chinese cuisine on offer during the holiday period.
“When the pound is weaker, we do see a big uplift in sales, but we also know that currency is a dangerous beast to rely on. What we’re doing is taking measures to ensure that airport retail remains resilient,” he said.
As the dollar strengthens, the airport is also preparing to nurture its U.S. clientele. “New York is Heathrow’s biggest destination, and we’re always keeping an eye on that market,” Gray said. “What we’re working on now is cultivating ‘pre-awareness’ of Heathrow’s retail offer — and the glamour of travel. We want to get our American cousins excited about the airport shopping experience.”
Hotel groups, too, are sharpening their game in the new environment.
Christiane Anstoetz, regional director of sales and marketing, Western Europe, at the luxury group FRHI Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Raffles, Fairmont and Swissôtel brands, said there is no doubt that Europe is a very attractive destination right now for U.S. and Asian customers.
“We saw the river cruise business pick up last year with U.S. customers, and we’re expecting a large increase this year — Americans are crazy about river cruises. We’re also expecting a rather larger mix of customers from Europe because they won’t want to spend abroad,” she said.
Switzerland is another story. Anstoetz said the company is girding itself for a steep drop in tourism in the country. “Switzerland has always been expensive. With the Swiss franc no longer tied to the euro, it’s only a matter of time before business drops in Switzerland,” she said.
The newly powerful dollar is also fueling the dreams of British companies looking to set up shop in the U.S.
According to a study by Royal Mail, the U.S. has overtaken Europe as the top target for international expansion for the Brits, with 39 percent of online retailers surveyed saying they will be targeting America, compared to 30 percent looking at European countries.
The dollar is decidedly less good for U.S. companies that rely on international trade and tourist traffic. Not only are their goods more expensive in the eyes of the traveling Europeans and Chinese, their quarterly results suffer when they translate sales and profits made in foreign territories back into dollars. Burberry, Kering, Ferragamo and Richemont all suffered from — and complained bitterly about — similar headwinds when the euro and pound were at their height.
“With Tiffany & Co. we saw a weakness in holiday sales in the U.S., and I think that some of it was due to missed tourist sales in the U.S. from the stronger dollar,” said Levy of Barclays.
Late last month, Wells Fargo Securities analyst Paul Lejuez reduced his 2015 earnings estimates for Gap Inc., The TJX Cos. Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Lululemon Athletica Inc. based on accelerating headwinds from foreign currency.
His colleague Evren Dogan Kopelman did the same for VF Corp., PVH Corp. and Ralph Lauren Corp. based on “negative currency impact given the strengthening U.S. dollar and these companies’ significant international exposure.”
In a research note issued after the recent Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, J.P. Morgan analyst Matthew Boss pointed to “three areas of near-term exposure” for VF with respect to currency, the first being that about 22 percent of sales come from Europe, with about two-thirds in euro-zone markets.
While acknowledging the negative impact of currency fluctuations is likely to last through the remainder of the year, VF’s chairman and chief executive officer Eric Wiseman also indicated there is a plus side to the stronger dollar: It makes overseas acquisitions cheaper.
“International is looking more and more attractive to us because of the strength of the U.S. dollar,” he said in discussing VF’s acquisitions strategy, “and we’re continuing to have discussions with people.”