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Retailers turn to Europe as African challenges bite

| Economic factors

When Brait agreed to pay about $1.2bn for UK fashion chain New Look last month, South African billionaire Christo Wiese’s investment company took a leaf from an increasingly popular book.

Amid a lack of acquisition opportunities on its home continent, Brait followed the likes of retailers The Foschini Group (TFG) and Spar in bypassing the potential of Africa’s growing middle class and targeting European consumers instead.

"They’re buying established businesses with established brands, distribution channels and shops, and this in a market that’s showing recovery," said Byron Lotter, a money manager at Johannesburg-based Vestact, which oversees about R2.3bn of assets. "Expansion into Africa is slower and a lot more difficult."

While sub-Saharan Africa has long-term potential, a shortage of retail locations and high transportation costs are among factors limiting expansion opportunities in that region, according to Guy Hayward, CEO of Walmart’s South African unit, Massmart. That’s preventing companies taking full advantage of middle-class households — those consuming $15 to $115 a day — that Standard Bank estimates will grow to 40-million by 2030 from 15-million now.

South African retailers have spent at least $1.5bn buying European companies this year, while Steinhoff International Holdings’ $5.3bn takeover of Cape Town-based clothes retailer Pepkor Holdings will see the furniture seller expand into markets such as Poland and the Czech Republic as well as Australia. Steinhoff, the JSE’s biggest furniture company with a market capitalisation of about R260bn, plans to list on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange this year to increase exposure to investors in Europe.

South African shopping chains have been struggling to grow sales at home as unemployment of more than 26%, power shortages and rising inflation stifles consumer spending. In contrast, the UK, for example, is experiencing falling joblessness and had deflation of 0.1% in April.

Ronnie Stein, chief financial officer of Cape Town-based TFG, said in late May the fashion chain was growing as fast as it could in the rest of Africa — yet that was not quickly enough to meet the company’s goals. TFG’s shares have increased 17% this year, compared with a 12% gain by the FTSE/JSE Africa General Retailers index.

TFG plans to have 375 stores in its Rest of Africa region by 2020, compared with its 148 now, yet also agreed to buy UK clothing chain Phase Eight for £140m in January.

"If we found the same opportunity in SA, we would have done it," Mr Stein said, referring to Phase Eight. "We are not slowing Africa growth at all, but we’ve now got the opportunity to grow in the rest of the world as well."

South African retailers expanding in Europe also benefit from diversifying their sources of revenue beyond the rand, according to Mr Stein. The currency has weakened about 17% against the dollar in the past year, and is trading close to a 14-year low.

Woolworths closed its three stores in Nigeria in 2013 because of high rental costs, duties and difficulties transporting goods. Seeing faster growth through the purchase of stores in established markets, the seller of organic foods and clothing brands such as Country Road bought David Jones, Australia’s oldest department-store chain, for $2bn last year.

Mr Price will open its first test store in Australia in the second half of the new fiscal year ending March next year, it said earlier this month.

"The prize in Africa is as big as ever, but it’s probably harder and further away," Massmart’s Mr Hayward said.


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