LONDON: Even as global consumer brands grow more dependent on Asia for sales of everything from fancy handbags to baby formula, European retailers keep retreating from the world’s fastest-growing markets.
The UK’s Tesco Plc, which said this month that it’s weighing a sale of its Thailand and Malaysia operations, is just the latest. Earlier this year, Germany’s Metro AG and France’s Carrefour SA offloaded their big-box stores in China. Britain’s Marks & Spencer Group Plc beat them to the exit by completing a regional pullback last year.
The retrenchment, which reverses a two-decade expansion, contrasts with continuing growth for European luxury companies including LVMH and Kering SA, which have ridden a wave of demand for Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci fashions in China. While producers of mainstream goods such as baby formula makers Danone and Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc have reported hiccups in China, they’re also increasingly reliant on Asia.
European grocers and big-box store chains have decided they can do without the hassle of operating in a Chinese market where consumer spending is easing amid a trade war with the US. For many of them, more immediate challenges loom closer to home, ranging from Brexit to protests and strikes in France.
“The companies that have a luxury or premium position are doing much better in Asia” than those that sell everyday items, said Ray Gaul, senior vice president of Retail Insights at research firm Kantar. “Everyday supermarket operators have struggled.”
While western big-box retailers have mostly avoided political pitfalls that have ensnared some luxury brands and the National Basketball Association, they’ve struggled to differentiate themselves in a market where local rivals such as Yonghui Superstores Co are expanding.
Tesco, the largest British retailer, folded its China business into a joint venture in 2013 and exited South Korea two years later.
The company could use proceeds from a sale of its Malaysia and Thailand operations, which analysts have estimated could fetch more than US$9bil, to restructure its UK business, which has cut thousands of jobs and shifted to new formats including checkout-free stores amid tough competition from discounters and Brexit-related pricing pressure.
Many European chains “have had to redirect investment to protect their core operations, ” said Nick Miles, head of Asia Research at the Institute of Grocery Distribution.
Starting in the 1990s, Carrefour opened more than 200 so-called hypermarkets selling everything from food to hardware in China before reversing course.
In June, it sold 80% of its Chinese operations to local rival Suning.com Co, marking the latest Asian exit for the company after India, Japan and South Korea. Carrefour five years ago pulled out of India, a market where burdensome regulations have kept many foreign retailers at bay.
Metro agreed in November to offload its China business to Wumei Technology Group Inc. Its Japan, India and Pakistan units have been cited as potential divestments by analysts.
Marks & Spencer sold its Hong Kong retail operations last year after closing unprofitable outlets in mainland China and elsewhere, pointing to a fragmented store portfolio and lack of scale.
The rapid advance of online shopping has challenged European retailers in a market where some regional rivals have moved more decisively. China’s largest hypermarket chain, Sun Art Retail Group Ltd., two years ago sold a 36% stake to internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd for US$2.9bil, boosting its digital capabilities.
A few western retailers are bucking the trend and expanding in Asia -- often with the help of local players with critical market expertise. France’s Auchan Retail SA, for example, boosted its stake in Sun Art as Alibaba invested in the Hong Kong-listed retailer.
In November, Walmart Inc. unveiled plans to open about 500 stores and depots over five to seven years in China. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has a partnership with local online retailer JD.com Inc.
Walmart’s membership-based Sam’s Club has thrived in China by going upscale and offering foreign goods to increasingly affluent shoppers. Rival Costco Wholesale Corp. in August drew crowds for the opening of its first outlet in the country, in Shanghai, offering Kweichow Moutai Co.’s fiery baijiu liquor at a discount.
UK online supermarket Ocado Group Plc has also focused on partnerships for boosting its international presence, most recently announcing an alliance with Japanese retailer Aeon Co. to set up robotic warehouses for online grocery sales.
Luke Jensen, CEO of Ocado’s technology arm, said working with a partner like Aeon is invaluable because “they have a deep understanding of their customers, and we can configure our technology to meet the specific challenges and opportunities of the Japanese market.” — Bloomberg
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