Asia craves European fashion but does not want its supermarkets

UK's Tesco is the latest retailer to announce exit from Asian markets

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 file photo, the sign on a Tesco shop is photographed, in London. The British-based grocery chain Tesco has halted production at a factory in China after a British newspaper said it used forced labor to produce charity Christmas cards. Tesco said Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 it had stopped production and launched an immediate investigation after the Sunday Times newspaper raised questions about the factory's labor practices. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)

Even as global consumer brands grow more dependent on Asia for sales of everything from fancy handbags to baby formula, European retailers keep retreating from the world’s fastest-growing markets.

The UK’s Tesco, which said this month that it’s weighing a sale of its Thailand and Malaysia operations, is just the latest. Earlier this year, Germany’s Metro and France’s Carrefour offloaded their big-box stores in China. Britain’s Marks & Spencer Group beat them to the exit by completing a regional pullback last year.

The retrenchment, which reverses a two-decade expansion, contrasts with continuing growth for European luxury companies including LVMH and Kering, which have ridden a wave of demand for Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci fashions in China. While producers of mainstream goods such as baby formula makers Danone and Reckitt Benckiser Group have reported hiccups in China, they’re also increasingly reliant on Asia.

European grocers and big-box store chains have decided they can do without the hassle of operating in a Chinese market where consumer spending is easing amid a trade war with the US. For many of them, more immediate challenges loom closer to home, ranging from Brexit to protests and strikes in France.

“The companies that have a luxury or premium position are doing much better in Asia” than those that sell everyday items, said Ray Gaul, senior vice-president of retail insights at research firm Kantar. “Everyday supermarket operators have struggled.”

While western big-box retailers have mostly avoided political pitfalls that have ensnared some luxury brands and the National Basketball Association, they have struggled to differentiate themselves in a market where local rivals such as Yonghui Superstores are expanding.

Tesco, the largest British retailer, folded its China business into a joint venture in 2013 and made an exit from the South Korean market two years later. The company could use proceeds from a sale of its Malaysia and Thailand operations, which analysts have estimated could fetch more than $9 billion (Dh33bn), to restructure its UK business, which has cut thousands of jobs and shifted to new formats including checkout-free stores amid tough competition from discounters and Brexit-related pricing pressure.

Many European chains “have had to redirect investment to protect their core operations,” said Nick Miles, head of Asia research at the Institute of Grocery Distribution.

Starting in the 1990s, France's Carrefour opened more than 200 so-called hypermarkets selling everything from food to hardware in China, the world's second-biggest economy, before reversing course. In June, it sold 80 per cent of its Chinese operations to local rival, marking the latest Asian exit for the company after India, Japan and South Korea. Carrefour five years ago pulled out of India, a market where burdensome regulations have kept many foreign retailers at bay.

Metro agreed in November to offload its China business to Wumei Technology Group. Its Japan, India and Pakistan units have been cited as potential divestments by analysts.

Marks & Spencer sold its Hong Kong retail operations last year after closing unprofitable outlets in mainland China and elsewhere, pointing to a fragmented store portfolio and lack of scale in the market.

The rapid advance of online shopping has challenged European retailers in a market where some regional rivals have moved more decisively. China’s largest hypermarket chain, Sun Art Retail Group, two years ago sold a 36 per cent stake to internet giant Alibaba Group Holding for $2.9bn, boosting its digital capabilities.

A few western retailers are bucking the trend and expanding in Asia - often with the help of local players with critical market expertise. France’s Auchan Retail, for example, boosted its stake in Sun Art as Alibaba invested in the Hong Kong-listed retailer.

In November, Walmart unveiled plans to open about 500 stores and depots over five to seven years in China. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has a partnership with local online retailer

Walmart’s membership-based Sam’s Club has thrived in China by going upscale and offering foreign goods to increasingly affluent shoppers. Rival Costco Wholesale in August drew crowds for the opening of its first outlet in the country, in Shanghai.

UK online supermarket Ocado Group has also focused on partnerships for boosting its international presence, most recently announcing an alliance with Japanese retailer Aeon to set up robotic warehouses for online grocery sales.

Luke Jensen, chief executive of Ocado’s technology arm, said working with a partner like Aeon is invaluable because “they have a deep understanding of their customers, and we can configure our technology to meet the specific challenges and opportunities of the Japanese market”.