It has been a topsy-turvy year for luxury goods players. Decreased tourist flows and spending — notably from China — political uncertainty and terrorism fears have all contributed to making 2016 a complex vintage for high-end wares.
Third-quarter results from several players have pointed to an uptick in business, leading to more optimism, especially in soft luxury categories, but concerns linger for the once seemingly invincible sector.
“The first half of 2016 was the most challenging for the luxury sector since 2009,” observed analyst Rogerio Fujimori of RBC Capital Markets. “In Q3, we saw improving trends driven by the Chinese cluster, most notably buying in China due to a repatriation of purchases and in the U.K. due to a weaker sterling. Growth is still modest, but at least getting closer to 2015 levels.”
Fujimori predicts 3 percent average organic growth for the sector as a whole this year overall, driven by 4 percent gains in the second half compared with just 1 percent in the first.
“My sense is that the worst is behind us,” said Exane BNP Paribas managing director Luca Solca. “The comps were very difficult in the first half of 2016 — and they get substantially easier in the second half. We are passing the anniversary of the Paris terrorist attacks, which kept overseas consumers away, and we’re seeing Chinese with a stronger feel-good [factor] going back to spending money.”
Still, company performance varies widely. “We observe a market-share game in a modest growth environment, with a sharp performance divergence between winners (like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent or Sephora) and losers (like Tod’s, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta or Swatch Group),” Fujimori said. “It is difficult to talk about an average when we have some brands growing at a double-digit rate and others declining at a double-digit rate.”
Players with a stronger focus on soft luxury, like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Hermès International and Kering, have seen the sharpest hikes.
LVMH’s organic sales grew 6 percent in the third quarter, its strongest this year, outstripping analysts’ expectations. The results were fueled by a significant improvement in Asia and solid performances in the U.S. and Europe with the exception of France, the company said. Fashion and leather goods grew 5 percent to 2.94 billion euros, or $3.29 billion at average exchange for the period, compared with flat organic growth in the first half, while watches and jewelry were up 2 percent to 877 million euros, or $978.4 million, slowing from 4 percent growth in the first half.
Hermès saw similar acceleration, with third-quarter sales increasing 9.9 percent to 1.26 billion euros, or $1.41 billion. Mainland China continued to grow, the firm said, while Hong Kong and Macau remained challenging.
By segment, sales growth accelerated in leather goods and saddlery, the company’s core category, to 18.2 percent. Its ready-to-wear and fashion accessories increased 0.7 percent, silk and textiles fell 3.6 percent and watches grew 1.5 percent.
HSBC managing director Erwan Rambourg highlighted the difference between wholesale-versus-retail and female-versus-male-led categories as being key in analyzing why certain areas have been faster to recoup than others.
“When you’re exiting a crisis, usually female-driven categories come out first,” he explained. “Typically handbags and accessories and jewelry have been doing better than watches. Watches are by nature still very wholesale-driven, while jewelry and handbags are retail-driven.”
As such, companies more focused on hard luxury — especially watches — continue to struggle with their own systemic challenges, notably overcapacity and high inventories, as well as the slowdown in Chinese consumption.
WWD reported in November that Swiss firm Compagnie Financière Richemont was entering talks with unions, possibly to cut between 200 and 250 jobs as demand for its high-end watches continues to flounder, with the biggest cuts expected at its Piaget and Vacheron Constantin labels. It would be the second round of layoffs this year at Richemont, which saw a 51 percent decline in its first-half profits on a 12.6 percent decline in sales. The firm has also been buying back some of its highest-priced watches, most of them gold Cartiers, harvesting the jewels and melting down the metal, a move aimed at helping third-party retailers to clear stock without resorting to promotions.
Richemont’s troubles mirror those of the overall Swiss watch industry, whose exports saw their steepest decline — 16 percent — of the year in October, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Barclays Capital noted there has been no growth in total Swiss watch exports since 2012.
The investment bank downgraded the hard luxury sector in September, notably on the back of poor watch revenues. “Weakening sales on easing comps is a major cause for concern. While we believe this is destocking after a period of weak trading, we are concerned this is a category issue given that global consumption remains robust — especially in China,” Barclays said in a research report. “The weakness has accelerated in 2016 — a surprise to us given that [China’s] antigraft measures are now in the fourth year following introduction, and any impact of the Apple Watch should have annualized from May.”
Tiffany & Co.’s struggles also continue. While the company reported a 4.5 percent gain in net profits in the third quarter ended Oct. 30, its sales for the period only increased 1.2 percent, and comparable-store sales dropped 2 percent.
“We are encouraged by some early signs of improvement in sales trends, but we clearly need more positive data over time before this can be considered an inflection point,” said Frederic Cumenal, Tiffany’s ceo. “In this recent quarter, we saw smaller sales declines in the U.S. from earlier this year, while Asia-Pacific results reflected strong growth in mainland China and a relatively smaller decline in Hong Kong. We also saw relative strength in U.K. sales, but continued softness on the European continent.”
Positive results from certain players could also be the result of restructuring efforts in the face of changing consumption patterns and tastes.
Burberry, in the midst of slimming down its business model, continues to struggle, reporting a 4 percent underlying sales decline in the six months to Sept. 30 and a 39.7 percent drop in first-half profits to 72 million pounds, or $98.6 million. The company has since hired Céline’s Marco Gobbetti as its new ceo to work alongside chief creative officer Christopher Bailey. Gobbetti is scheduled to join Burberry early next year.
Bucking the trend of a few years ago, when most luxury firms increased their prices, several brands — like Cartier with its Love and Comme un Clou lines and Tag Heuer’s more diversified watch offer — have also benefited from having introduced items at more accessible price points.
This could also be helping to boost demand in Europe. “To a certain extent, what little is left of European consumers for the sector may have been gradually priced out. That’s another reason why, by having a more balanced portfolio in terms of products and price points, you’re seeing growth resume,” he said. “Even though European consumption in Europe itself is probably only 35 percent of sales, you still need to take those consumers into account.”
With growth rates little better than stagnant for luxury goods in Europe and the U.S. over the past decade, brands have gone all out to conquer Chinese consumers, leaving firms potentially vulnerable to any shift in Chinese sentiment or behavior. While data is scarce on spending by nationality, rather than destination, HSBC’s Rambourg estimates that around 40 percent of aggregate spending on luxury goods worldwide is attributed to Chinese consumers.
As such, fluctuating tourist flows from China to different regions (notably from traveling to Hong Kong and the U.S. to Japan, South Korea and Europe), changing consumption patterns after a series of crackdowns on corruption, compounded by the deterioration of the yuan, have all negatively impacted the luxury market this past year.
According to Barclays and Global Blue, Chinese consumers posted their eighth consecutive drop in monthly organic spending in October, but the rate of decline appears to be slowing; Spending by Chinese tourists fell 7.6 percent that month compared with 14.4 percent in September.
There are bright spots. The U.K. has been particularly strong for luxury over the past six months due to the weak pound, sending tourist inflows up double-digits. Tourist spending in the U.K. increased 36 percent in August, 32 percent in September and nearly 35 percent in October, according to Global Blue and Barclays. “The U.K. has been doing very well, mostly artificially based on price arbitrage, because the pound has collapsed post-Brexit and companies are not able to increase prices quickly enough to compensate,” Rambourg said.
Luxury has also had a rough ride in the U.S., hampered by political uncertainty throughout the tough presidential election campaign. “Even if the result is not what most people expected…at least that uncertainty is behind you,” Rambourg added. “Even though there’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead, U.S. consumers, in terms of consumer confidence measures, seem to be moving on.”
So is it too early for luxury players to break out the Champagne for a year-end celebration? Possibly. The sense of security brought on by stronger third-quarter performance has as much to do with better comparables. And much of the uncertainty that has characterized the year — including the longer-term impact of Brexit, Trump’s presidency and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s resignation, coming elections in countries including France and Germany, political tensions in Asia and fears of terrorism — will not evaporate as the industry rings in 2017.