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HK protests, China slowdown takes sparkle off luxury market

Paris

Protests in Hong Kong, an economic slowdown and anti-corruption drive in China and a coup in Thailand: Asia is no longer a market of constant growth for luxury goods firms.

LVMH, world number-one in the sector and owner of brands like Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Dior, saw its sales drop by three per cent in Asia, excluding Japan, in the third-quarter of 2014, a far cry from the halcyon days of 2010-2012.

In every other market, LVMH's sales increased, according to figures published last week. Even activity in sluggish Europe has done better over the past nine months, the group said.

The crisis in Hong Kong "will have an impact" on the quarterly results, group finance director Jean-Jacques Guiony said. "We have already noted some negative impact on activity in duty free shops in the third-quarter." Arnaud Cadart, an analyst at CM-CIC securities, said there was a "rare coming-together of economic, monetary and geopolitical factors that have had a negative impact on the Asian market".

Slowing economic growth in China, along with a clampdown on lavish spending by government officials, is crippling luxury goods firms that are used to viewing the growing pool of wealthy and brand-conscious consumers in the world's number two economy as a cash cow.

Consultants Bain & Company have forecast that the luxury goods market in China will contract for the first time ever this year.

This will have a clear impact on companies like Switzerland's Richemont, Britain's Burberry and Mulberry and Italy's Prada, and many luxury brands are reining in their previously rapid expansion.

Bain said the slowdown in China, combined with other factors, would put the brakes on the global luxury-goods sector, which the consultancy now sees growing at two per cent in 2014 - what it called "the new normal".

Mr Cadart noted that the Chinese market has carried the sector for several years and "couldn't keep up such a pace in the long-term".

While rich Chinese clients are still seen as the big spenders, these days the big spending tends to be on holiday rather than at home.

Still, that's not to say all luxury firms are putting the skids on the breakneck pace of expansion in China.

Hermes cut the ribbon on a glittering new store in Shanghai in September, and the shoe still also fits for Jimmy Choo, whose initial public offering (IPO) launched in London this week was aimed at raising cash to tap into demand in China and Japan.

Luxury goods firms have also complained that a drive to stamp out lavish and ostentatious spending has dried up sales of cognac and expensive wines as well as items such as watches, traditionally given as presents.

LVMH said revenues in its wines and spirits division dipped 7 per cent in the first nine months of 2014 from a year earlier.

French spirit-maker Remy Cointreau this week said sales in the first half of the year had slumped 15.5 per cent, dragged lower by weaker demand for its flagship Remy Martin cognac in China.

Luxury goods sectors in other countries in the region have also taken a hit from Chinese tourists staying away for a variety of reasons, including a military-backed coup in Thailand in May.

Singapore has seen luxury goods clients cut by a fifth, according to Bain.

But the biggest dent in the sector is likely to come from the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, a global centre for luxury watches and the high-end goods market in general.

Normally, the industry can count on around 10 to 12 per cent of its turnover coming from Hong Kong, and as much as 20 per cent for watchmakers such as Richemont and Swatch.

AFP