Uniqlo, 7-Eleven owners bet overseas to counter aging Japan

by BLOOMBERG

Stagnant spending and soft wage growth in Japan are forcing two of Asia’s biggest retailers — Fast Retailing Co. and Seven & i Holdings Co. — to court overseas consumers to drive long-term growth.

Fast Retailing, operator of the Uniqlo chain, and convenience-store giant Seven & i will report earnings results Thursday amid a Japanese economy that’s still posing challenges even as it expands. While gross domestic product has grown for six straight quarters, wages are still languishing.

Operating profit at Fast Retailing for the fiscal year ending August is expected to increase as the company saw improving results in Southeast Asia and China, and renewed its focus on low prices. Meanwhile, Seven & i may report a record operating profit for its second quarter, after announcing a broad restructuring of its business that included its biggest international push.

Japanese consumer companies from retailers to tobacco producers and brewers are expanding overseas as thrifty consumers and a dwindling population dim prospects at home. Fast Retailing’s international store count now surpasses the number of locations at home, while the operator of 7-Eleven beefs up its U.S. operations after the $3.3 billion purchase of more than 1,000 Sunoco gas stations and convenience stores.

“There is an increasing need for the consumer companies to go abroad to drive growth,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Thomas Jastrzab. “You’re going to continue to see greater dependence on overseas for sales and profitability.”

Analysts are expecting Fast Retailing to report sales grew 4 percent to 1.86 trillion yen ($16.6 billion) for the year ended Aug. 31, while operating profit gained 41 percent to 179 billion yen, according to an average of 16 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. For the next fiscal year, analysts are estimating sales will reach 2.02 trillion yen.

Expansion Room

In Southeast Asia, operating profit doubled in the third quarter ended March 31 while same-store sales in China grew. Uniqlo has probably only captured about 2 percent of its accessible market in China and has room to expand, Goldman Sachs analyst Sho Kawano wrote in a note to investors Sept. 25. It’s likely sales from China could match that of Japan for Uniqlo in the near future, he noted.

The clothier’s main Uniqlo business has more than 1,000 international locations, compared with 831 in Japan. Uniqlo’s revenue outside of Japan made up about 37 percent of Fast Retailing’s sales in 2016. 

Shares of Fast Retailing fell 0.4 percent in early trading in Tokyo on Thursday. The shares have tumbled more than 16 percent this year, while Japan’s benchmark Topix index has gained 12 percent. Seven & i’s stock slipped 1.1 percent early Thursday, and is down 0.8 percent for 2017.

As Seven & i Holdings checks off the first year of its business overhaul under President Ryuichi Isaka, analysts are expecting sales for the quarter ending Aug. 31 to rise 3.2 percent from the year-earlier period to 1.52 trillion yen, and operating profit to rise 6.1 percent to 106.1 billion yen, according to Bloomberg estimates.

Even with Seven & i’s Sunoco purchase, there’s still some ways to go before it sees results from its international initiatives. The deal is scheduled to close at the end of the year. In the first quarter, Seven & i’s North America operations accounted for 32 percent of sales, but only 7.6 percent of operating income.

Domestically, the restructuring has involved closing unprofitable business segments and experimenting with new store formats to lure more customers.

“We will see stronger sales contribution from the North American market, but over the next two years, it will still rely on domestic sales,” said Morningstar analyst Jeanie Chen. “In terms of sales growth, I think the room for Japan is very limited.”