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HONG KONG

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict

Talk to any top executive at Gucci, Prada, Tiffany (or any luxury brand for that matter) and they will tell you the importance of Hong Kong as a market in their business. For years, Hong Kong has ranked among the top five luxury hubs and accounted for about 5-10% of the estimated US$285 billion luxury goods market. However, the recent pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong against China have left luxury brands grappling, with many undergoing store closures. With the situation seeming to worsen by the minute, luxury brands must act fast and with prudence to limit their losses, formulate strategies, and identify other regions that may help them offset loss of revenues from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been one of the top destinations for luxury brands with several leading brands operating multiple stores in this small area encompassing 427 square miles and housing a population of 7.5 million. Hong Kong achieved this cult status due to a large number of visitors from mainland China (as well as other Asian countries) who travel to Hong Kong to shop. This is due to Hong Kong’s tax-free policy and an assurance that the products purchased are genuine (unlike in China where stores are distrusted).

Most of the leading luxury retailers derive a significant portion of their sales from Hong Kong. Richemont Group (which owns brands such as Cartier, Chloe, Dunhill, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Panerai, Piaget, and Roger Dubuis, among many other) derives about 11% of its global sales from Hong Kong, while Burberry derives about 8-9% of its global sales from the territory. Brands such as LVMH and Prada attain about 6% of their global sales from Hong Kong. Despite having one of the highest real estate costs, brands have always been bullish about Hong Kong, opening multiple stores and stocking their best and most recent collections.

Recent protests impact luxury retail sales

However, since mid-2019, Hong Kong’s retail market has taken a big hit. What started as a protest over an extradition law has translated into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement challenging China’s grip over Hong Kong and has brought the latter to a standstill.

Along with a large fall in visitors from China, several other countries have issued travel warnings against Hong Kong. Visitor numbers declined by 39% in August 2019 (compared with August 2018), with visitors from China falling more than 42% during the same period. In addition to fewer tourists, the local population is also avoiding malls and other public places owing to the ongoing protects. In fact, about 30 shopping malls shut down across Hong Kong in October due to violent protests. These closures have come around the peak festive time (the Golden Week holiday) and have continued to remain closed during the otherwise well-performing Thanksgiving week.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

Brands are estimated to suffer a 30-60% quarterly drop in sales in Q3 2019 and considering how the protests are widening and worsening, the sales are expected to drop further in Q4. For instance, as per UK-based financial services firm, Jefferies, Burberry’s sales from Hong Kong are expected to fall by about GBP100 million (US$131.6 million) in 2019. While the brand is expected to offset half of the loss from growing sales in other regions, the remaining loss will be incurred by the luxury retailer.

Given the steep fall in sales and high real estate cost, brands are now revaluating their presence in Hong Kong. In October 2019, Prada announced its plan to shut down one of its flagship stores in Causeway Bay. The company used to pay HK$9 million (US$1.2 million) monthly rent for the 15,000 square feet store and could not justify the high costs anymore. While a few brands are shutting down stores, few others, such as Burberry, are talking to their landlords about rent reduction to cope with the gloomy sales in the short run.

The impact on luxury sales may not be just short term in Hong Kong. Several brands are re-strategizing their approach towards Hong Kong, especially with regards to the Chinese customer. Chinese customers are increasingly going for shopping trips to Japan and South Korea instead of Hong Kong.

Moreover, the Chinese government is also encouraging customers to shop in mainland China by reducing taxes and thereby narrowing the price gap between China and overseas. In 2018, the Chinese government reduced import taxes on luxury goods and followed it with a cut in value-added tax in April 2019. Post this, several brands such as Gucci and Hermes reduced their prices by about 3% in China. This might show that several brands are trying to offset their losses in Hong Kong by targeting the Chinese consumer in their home country.

Brands are also shifting their marketing investments from Hong Kong towards the mainland. Hermes and LV have been extremely bullish about the Chinese market and have opened new stores in the region. Hermes opened its 26th store in China in 2019 and has been expanding its e-commerce presence in China since launching it in 2018.

Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict by EOS Intelligence

Brands are extra careful about their design and communication

In addition to focusing on reaching the Chinese customers (in their home market as well as new travel destinations), brands are also being extra cautious about not supporting Hong Kong in the conflict. China has been prompt at bringing brands to task if and when they identified Hong Kong as an independent country in any of their designs or brand communication.

Brands such as Givenchy, LVMH, Versace, and Coach have publically apologized to the Chinese nationals for their clothing designs that labeled Hong Kong as a separate country (from China). Moreover, they removed all such designs from their collections, globally, to ensure they remain in good books of the Chinese customers.

The Chinese have also been very sensitive about any support or sympathy shown to Hong Kong with regards to the conflict. For instance, Tiffany received significant backlash for one of its print ads, which showed a female model covering her right eye with her hand. The Chinese saw this as a sympathetic shout out to the Hong Kong protester who was shot in the eye in August 2019. While Tiffany clarified that the campaign was not a political statement and was conceptualized and shot much before the incident, they eventually removed the image from all digital and social media platforms.

Although not directly related to luxury brands, in October 2019, the Chinese government sanctioned the NBA for a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Daryl Morey, who is the GM of Houston Rockets team. The NBA and Tiffany cases show China’s lack of tolerance towards any pro-Hong Kong message by any brand or organization and thereby brands must ensure that they distance themselves from any pro-Hong Kong sentiment (real or perceived).

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Most brands are currently following a wait and watch strategy, where they are not sending large amounts of their inventory to Hong Kong as has always been the case. They have temporarily shut down shops and given unpaid leaves to their employees. They will wait and gauge if the Chinese consumers do return to Hong Kong when the situation settles and decide the future course accordingly. In case the Chinese customer takes a fancy to other shopping destinations (such as Japan) or start shopping domestically, Hong Kong may lose its position as the luxury hub of Asia.

Opportunities that may arise

In case the Hong Kong conflict has any permanent impact on luxury sales in the region, brands will have to go back to the drawing board to ensure a strong position in Asia. In addition to identifying and developing new shopping hubs for the Chinese customers, brands will also have to alter their strategy and approach to retain Hong Kong’s resident customers. Hong Kong’s resident customers are also avid shoppers but they are more price sensitive in comparison with their Chinese counterparts.

Targeting solely the local residents may also widen the scope of e-commerce in luxury retail sales. Unlike most other markets, e-commerce has not been a major driver of sales in Hong Kong. This is due to the fact that a large number of shoppers are travelers and therefore prefer to make their purchases from retail stores. Moreover, the presence of multiple stores within a small area further reduced the need for e-commerce.

However, if brands plan to reduce their footprint in Hong Kong (only to cater to local residents), they may look at shutting down few stores and promoting e-commerce sales. Hong Kong residents are also more likely to purchase from online multi-brand aggregators (such as Farfetch and Net-a-Porter) that offer deals and discounts. Thus working with such aggregators to promote their brands may also be a good avenue for luxury retailers.

A growing focus and investment towards developing the e-commerce part of the business may also result in growing demand and thereby investments in the mobile payment technologies (which are used for easy payments for purchases) in Hong Kong. While this technology never really took off in Hong Kong as it did in China, this may help in providing the push that it needed.

EOS Perspective

While it is yet to be determined if the ongoing conflict will have a permanent effect on Hong Kong’s position as a prime shopping destination, it is safe to say that the situation will remain unfavorable for the next few months. While some brands such as Prada are already shutting down stores permanently and limiting their exposure in Hong Kong, others such as Burberry are a little more optimistic and want to wait before taking any such decision. This is due to the fact that Hong Kong previously faced a similar situation in 2014, when the umbrella revolution disrupted sales. However, sales bounced back shortly after and Hong Kong continued to be one of the most important luxury markets.

That being said, current protests have become much more intense than anything Hong Kong has endured before and do hold the ability to permanently contract Hong Kong’s role as a leading travel and shopping destination. This may force brands to rethink their strategy for the region with increased focus on e-commerce. This in turn could create opportunities for Hong Kong’s e-commerce and its ancillary markets.

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Can Luxury Swiss Watches Stand the Test of Time?

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Swiss watches have long been synonymous with innovation, elegance, and class. These pieces have been considered the standard of sophistication and finesse, making their producers the undisputed leaders of the luxury watch market. But as the saying goes “what rises must fall”, the rock solid foundation of this popularity is going thorough turbulent times. The industry has seen a hard time in the past two years, as Swiss-made watches exports have recently declined. We are taking a look into what has led to low exports of these watches and whether the industry is ready to take any steps to see a revival in the near future.

Swiss watchmakers dominate the luxury watch segment with close to 50% of the global market share controlled by three Swiss watch manufacturers (Swatch Group, Richemont, and Rolex). As of 2016, these luxury watches were exported across all continents – Asia (53%), Europe (31%), Americas (14%), Africa (1%), and Oceania (1%). Hong Kong, USA, and China are the top three export markets.

The Swiss watch industry has been facing difficulties since 2015, when the year ending exports by value of Swiss watches stood at US$ 21.5 billion (CHF 21.5 billion), a 3.1% decline from 2014. The situation worsened in 2016, when the exports were further 9.7% lower than in 2015, falling to the lowest level since 2011. This was mainly due to a sharp decline in sales across Asia, especially Hong Kong and China, which are among the industry’s top export markets. Hong Kong is the most crucial market for Swiss watches – its share decreased from 14.4% in 2015 to 11.9% in 2016. During the span of five years between 2012 and 2016, exports to Hong Kong reduced by 46.5%. The third largest export market, China, was also affected and observed a decline of 18.7% in value exports over the five year period. The situation has not been so dramatic in the USA. Exports share held by the USA also went down between 2012 and 2016, showing a marginal decrease of 0.45%. The Swiss watch industry, over the period of five years, also saw a fall in sales volume globally, declining by almost 13% from 29.1 million units in 2012 to 25.3 million units in 2016.

The year 2017 also did not start on a positive note for the Swiss watch industry. The first quarter of the year recorded a drop of 3.1% in unit exports to 5.6 million from 5.9 million in 2016. Similar trend was observed in the change of exports value. The industry generated US$ 4.5 billion (CHF 4.5 billion) from exports during January to March in 2017, a figure showing a 3% decrease in export value from US$ 4.6 billion (CHF 4.6 billion) in 2016 and a 11.6% lower from US$ 5.1 billion (CHF 5.1 billion) in 2015 in the first quarter. Exports to Hong Kong and USA also took a plunge during the first three months of 2017 – the value of exports for Hong Kong was lower by 0.1% and 31.6% when compared to 2016 and 2015, respectively, in the USA exports were lower by 4.2% and 18.9% in contrast to 2016 and 2015, respectively. However, China gained 16.6% (over 2016) and 7.9% (over 2015) in exports value. But this small achievement does not paint a rosy picture for the luxury watch industry for 2017. With exports taking a dive globally, the downward trend is expected to continue over the coming months.

The dip in exports to Hong Kong and China is a cause of worry. Economic slowdown in Hong Kong is one of the reasons responsible for slumping sales of luxury watches here. Hong Kong also attracts a large number of Chinese travelers each year solely for shopping purposes. The country is heavily dependent on China in terms of trade and tourism, and any drastic change in China’s economic situation affecting the buying patterns of Chinese consumers can be seen across Hong Kong as well. The launch of anti-corruption campaign in China by President Xi Jinping in November 2012 has also affected the sales of luxury watches. The campaign keeps a strict check on government officials and employees of state-owned enterprises who indulge in extravagant show-off of property, luxury belongings, or other similar expensive assets. Under the new amendments made to the campaign in 2014, both the payer and payee of a bribe are to be penalized. This has made consumers wary of buying Swiss luxury watches, among other lavish goods, as a gifting item to high rank government officials. The Swiss watch market has been hit by this policy and the impact on luxury watches sales has been negative. Another reason that has led to the decrease in luxury watches exports is the strengthening of the Swiss Franc. After the Swiss National Bank removed the cap on the exchange rate to prevent the Swiss Franc from over appreciating in 2015, importing products from Switzerland in these Asian countries became more expensive which has disturbed exports.

Swiss luxury watchmakers also face tough competition from smartwatch manufacturers. In 2016, 21.1 million smartwatches were shipped as against 25.3 million Swiss watches. The volume gap between the two types of watches is expected to further reduce in the coming years. With most of the smartwatches priced in the range of US$ 400 to US$ 1,000, the high-end luxury watch market does not feel too much competitive pressure from the smartwatch industry. It is the low-cost and mid-tier segments of the luxury watches that are facing the largest threat. Luxury watchmakers are introducing their own line of smart watches to deal with this threat posed by smartwatch manufacturers.

Luxury watch market is also not free of counterfeit products. The urge to own a luxury piece without burning a hole in the pocket is a dream of many, pushing some consumers to settle down for fake items at affordable prices. With better mechanical parts and improvement in aesthetics over the years, the fake copies have improved in quality. Every year, 40 million fake pieces are produced (against 30 million original Swiss watches), as per figures published by Federation of Swiss Watch Industry. With more fakes than genuine products available in the market, the Swiss industry needs to find ways to curb the illegal sales of counterfeit products and prevent erosion of own sales.

EOS Perspective

In the current challenging environment, Swiss watchmakers are forced to rethink their business strategies. With plunging exports, the manufacturers are focusing on introducing new products enabled with newer technologies and gradually stepping into the smartwatch market to attract buyers. For instance, Swatch Group, in 2015, launched ‘pay-by-the-wrist’ watch named Swatch Bellamy. With built-in NFC technology, the watch allows the user to pay for their purchases. Another example is Mont Blanc, part of the luxury Swiss manufacturer Richemont Group, which introduced Montblanc Summit that runs on Google’s Android Wear 2 platform. The watch is equipped with features such as heart-rate monitor but still looks like a classic mechanical watch. The watch aims at offering consumers a unique experience of wearing a smartwatch which does not resemble a typical smartwatch, a factor important for many style-oriented users.

In the midst of these risks hovering above the luxury watch industry, we believe innovation, adoption of new technology, and expanding into new markets should be the top priorities for watch manufacturers in the coming years. There is some concern about how long will it take for the luxury watch industry to revive from the current turbulent situation, but this definitely does not indicate the death knell for the Swiss watch makers anytime soon.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Thailand: Endeavoring to Become Asia’s Next Luxury Shopping Stop

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As purchasing power growth is slowing down in mature markets such as the USA and Europe, international brands and luxury retailers are seeking expansion opportunities in dynamic and rapidly developing Asian countries. Thailand is fast becoming a destination of choice for several luxury brands owing to robust demand, developed urban infrastructure, and low cost of establishing a business. Increasing number of tourists indulging in massive luxury spending as well as mushrooming high-end shopping centers are slowly coalescing to establish Thailand as a premier luxury shopping hub in South East Asia.

Luxury goods sales in Thailand are likely to reach US$ 2.2 billion by 2019 owing to improved economic conditions, retail expansion, and plethora of international brands entering the country. This growth has also spurred as Thailand offers several other benefits to luxury brands and retailers such as low rent and investment cost, and strong government support. Retail infrastructure is also witnessing a rapid growth, with expansion of several shopping malls and outlets.

Thailand - Asia’s Next Luxury Shopping Stop-1

Despite the bright growth prospects and encouraging retail development, there are several factors that are inhibiting this growth. For instance, the high luxury goods tax is a major hindrance to retail sales. Other factors such as counterfeit products, fragmented market, and political instability in the country are also adversely affecting sales.

Thailand - Asia’s Next Luxury Shopping Stop-2

EOS Perspective

Thailand faces a strong competition from other commercial centers such as Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, yet it is slowly emerging as a premier market for luxury products due to its unique ability to offer goods at more competitive prices owing to relatively lower overheads. Additionally, China and Hong Kong are the two most penetrated markets by high street brands in Asia, and are approaching saturation. Several luxury brands are halting further expansion in the two countries amid sluggish sales. Consequently, this has opened doors for Thailand which is slowly becoming a target market for retailers to expand operations.

Nevertheless, luxury retailers in Thailand face a major setback due to the 30% luxury goods tax, which discourages even affluent shoppers. Limited domestic purchasing capabilities further hinder sales, however relatively low housing costs leave a considerable disposable income in hand, which marginally helps to spur luxury spending.

Based on our analysis, certain strategies can be adopted to succeed in the Thai market – widening distribution channel by opting for online retailing, choosing the right target audience, designing an effective marketing strategy, and tapping the M-commerce boom in Thailand.

 

Thailand - Asia’s Next Luxury Shopping Stop-3

 

While Thailand still remains behind many of its peer countries in terms of luxury retail development, it is likely to become one of the leading Asian markets in medium to long term, increasingly hosting several prominent international luxury brands and registering tremendous retail sales growth.

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