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January 13, 2014 10:00 am
Three years ago Chinese shoe sellers were increasing their sales at a 20 per cent clip – and they were adding stores even faster. Stock valuations could be as dazzling as Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Now that sales are flat or falling, shares have followed suit and a rebound looks unlikely.
Belle International, the mass market giant, is the second worst performer in Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index in the past year, off two-fifths. Stella International, a more upmarket rival, has lost 13 per cent. Last week Belle said same-store shoe sales were growing just 1.3 per cent at the end of last year, and on Monday Stella reported a 6 per cent fall. The two are not directly comparable – Belle has sportswear stores, Stella makes more shoes for other brands than it retails itself – but they show how yet another industry in China has been hit by slowing sales.
Shoes in China are a tough business. The top 10 sellers, led by Belle, make up just a quarter of the market, according to Nomura. Without much top-line growth, the focus has turned to profitability. Yet Belle is increasing outlets by about 10 per cent a year even as its labels and styles, often very similar to premium brands, have come under attack from internet-based sellers offering similar products at a fraction of the price. Investors have made their feelings clear: Belle is trading on 13 times forward earnings. The 2009 peak was 30. During that time, Stella’s valuation has held steady at about 14 times. Its manufacturing base is one reason, but another is its more careful outlet expansion and a commitment to the sort of strong branding that can withstand internet undercutters.
The Chinese like shoes as much as the next consumer, but they have got savvier about how they buy them. Time for sellers such as Belle to take note.
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