Carrefour SA, Europe’s largest retailer, may be the latest Western company to pull back from China. It’s unlikely to be the last.
On Monday, the hypermarket operator said it would sell 80% of its China business for 4.8 billion yuan ($699 million) in cash to Suning.com, the Chinese retailer backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Carrefour will retain a 20% stake.
Over the past few years, the French company’s plans to shrink its China footprint has been one of the worst-kept secrets in banking. Though Carrefour sold the business pretty cheaply – with a valuation of 0.2 times 2018 sales, compared with the industry average of 0.84, according to Citigroup Inc. – loosening its ties to the mainland may be a smart move, whatever the price. With sales in the country flagging and losses piling up, the deal comes as China’s macroeconomic picture is also darkening.
Yet the key challenge for Carrefour preceded the trade war. In recent years, online-only players such as Alibaba have been piling pressure on brick-and-mortar operations, with Tesco Plc, Best Buy Co. and Marks & Spencer Plc each announcing plans to pull back from the mainland market. Carrefour’s share of the country’s hypermarket segment fell to 4.6% last year from 8.2% in 2009, Citi writes.(1)
That’s a problem in a country with one of the world’s biggest rates of e-commerce penetration. China’s online retail sales reached 3.86 trillion yuan in the first five months of this year, accounting for more than one-fifth of the country’s total purchases of consumer goods, according to a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
To make matters worse, foreign brands no longer have the cachet they once enjoyed – at least in low-end consumer goods. In a survey last year, Credit Suisse AG said that Chinese consumers preferred domestic purveyors in categories like food and drinks and home appliances. With the trade war whipping up nationalist fervor, that trend may accelerate: The bank’s latest poll of shoppers 18 to 29 years old showed that 41% preferred phones made by Huawei Technologies Co., up from 28%, while interest for Apple Inc.’s products fell to 28% from 40%.
For many firms, ceding control to a local partner is probably the best way forward. Carrefour appears to be borrowing a page from the playbook of McDonald’s Corp., which sold 80% of its China business in 2017 to a tie-up between state giant Citic Group Corp. and private equity firm Carlyle Group LP.
Or consider Walmart Inc., which sold its e-commerce delivery site to JD.com Inc. in 2016 in exchange for a stake in the Chinese retailer. The U.S. firm now aims to open 40 of its Sam’s Club stores in China by 2020. Costco Wholesale Corp. is also betting on China’s appetite for bulk buying, with plans to open its first bricks-and-mortar store in August. Whether Costco can pull this off without a local partner remains unclear.
What is clear is that Carrefour won’t be the last retailer to rethink its China strategy. Germany’s Metro AG is also looking to sell its $1.5 billion Chinese business. At a time when Chinese acquisitions overseas have dried up, bankers at least can thank Western firms for managing to drum up some business from the mainland.
(1) The bank citesEuromonitor International research.
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Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.
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