When China sneezes, the world catches a cold. So, when China caught the new coronavirus, or COVID-19 virus, there was going to be major economic repercussions. With the world’s second largest economy on virtual lockdown, its effect on both domestic and international sales for fashion companies will be seismic.
While there is no way to predict how long it will take to runs its course, companies have already started to make tentative statements about how it is affecting their bottom line. Those companies heavily reliant on the Chinese market and high spending Chinese tourists will be particularly affected and be crossing their fingers that this is over quickly.
While it is hard to predict the length of the outbreak and its impact, we can look back at the last major virus outbreak, SARS, which originated in China in 2002. It's thought that this strain of the coronavirus usually only found in small mammals mutated, enabling it to infect humans in the same way as COVID-19 has. By the end of the nine-month long SARS outbreak, the virus had spread to several other Asian countries as well as the UK and Canada, killing 775 and infecting more than 8,000 people.
The current stats for COVID-19 are 71,499 confirmed cases and 1,776 deaths, that’s a 1 in 40 death rate compared to over 1 in 10 for SARS. In terms of stats it looks less serious, with many people being carriers and displaying no symptoms. The under reporting of Chinese authorities has been questioned and how they are trying to minimise the severity of the outbreak, but they seem to be taking swift action to prevent contagion.
The world in 2020 is very different from 2002. The Chinese are travelling much more and have become some of the world’s highest spending tourists. In 2005, there were 95,000 Chinese visitors to the UK, in 2018 that number had reached 391,000 and was continuing to grow. Chinese tourists make up the largest share of visitors to the UK (32%) and they have one of the highest average spends of any national group. In 2018, the latest set of statistics, the average spend of a Chinese tourist in the UK amounted to £1,373. They were only surpassed by visitors from Qatar and UAE.
In London’s West End, accounting for a quarter of all non-EU tax-free spend in 2018, on average, Chinese customers spent £1,630 per shopping trip, making them 59% more valuable than other international shoppers.
Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific, has already cut 90% of its capacity into mainland China and announced that overall capacity would be slashed by 30% as a result of falling demand related to the outbreak. British Airways announced that it would temporarily suspend its flights to mainland China, following the UK Foreign Office’s advice against all but essential travel to the country.
The most visited country in Europe was France with 2.2 million Chinese nationals visiting in 2018. Paris was already having to contend with transport strikes and gilet jaunes protests and now one of its most valuable visitors is staying away. The same could be said about Hong Kong; months of riots now followed by COVID-19 will have taken its toll on this important luxury retail location. The majority of the world’s major cities will be affected by the lack of Chinese tourists.
For British luxury giant, Burberry, Chinese consumers account for 40 per cent of revenues worldwide. Burberry Group plc released a statement at the beginning of February saying, “The outbreak of the coronavirus in Mainland China is having a material negative effect on luxury demand. While we cannot currently predict how long this situation will last, we remain confident in our strategy.” said Marco Gobbetti, Chief Executive Officer.
Currently 24 of Burberry’s 64 stores in Mainland China are closed with remaining stores operating with reduced hours and seeing significant footfall declines. This is impacting retail sales in both Mainland China and Hong Kong “The spending patterns of Chinese customers in Europe and other tourist destinations have been less impacted to date but given widening travel restrictions, we anticipate these to worsen over the coming weeks.” the statement said. Burberry was planning to hold a fashion show in Shanghai in March but that has been put on indefinite hold, while Chanel has cancelled its May Métiers d’Art show scheduled for Beijing.
Estée Lauder gave a recent update to the markets saying it it expects adjusted earnings of $5.60 to $5.70 per share in 2020, down from a previous estimate of $5.85 to $5.93 citing the coronavirus. Fabrizo Freda, Estee Lauder president and chief executive, said: “The global situation will also affect our financial results in the near term, so we are updating our fiscal year outlook. We will be ready to return to our growth momentum as the global coronavirus is resolved.”
Other brands who have focussed on growth in China will feel the effects. Luxury outerwear brand, Moncler, warned that footfall at its stores in China had plunged 80% since the coronavirus outbreak and it earns 43% of its total revenues from Asia. Michael Kors and Versace owner Capri Holdings saying it would take a $100m hit from coronavirus in China, where it was forced to close more than 150 stores.
Right - Off-White - Logo Print Face Mask - £65 from Farfetch
Kering makes 34% of its sales in Asia Pacific, excluding Japan. Kering’s chief executive officer, François-Henri Pinault, said - on the 12th February - the group - Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta - had experienced a strong drop in sales over the past 10 days. Many of the group’s stores in China are closed or running reduced hours. The company said it will halt advertising spend and postpone new openings in China in the near-term in a bid to limit the damage caused by the virus. Pinault said that planned product launches might also be reconsidered and is also shifting inventory to other regions to make sure stocks don't pile up in China. Without giving an estimate for any impact from the virus on earnings, he said online shopping was not really making up for the decline in store footfall. "The warehouses are shut. People can place orders but there are no deliveries," he said.
While being strong in China and in the Chinese market has been a boon for many years, this outbreak shows the danger of having all your eggs in the Chinese basket. Once a high growth area, this is a double whammy for brands; you have the domestic market closed and the free spending tourists are no longer shopping.
China’s growth was already slowing, but it was just about to come out of the trade wars with America. Even if this outbreak is over in a relatively short window of time, it’s the momentum it has lost that will take the longest time to get back. Getting those Chinese tourists to rebook their flights and travel plans, brands reworking expansion plans and product and consumers getting that feel good factor to spend will take months to correct. Many brands are downplaying the current impact to protect their share price. Hopefully, the epidemic will be over shortly, but the repercussions of COVID-19 will be felt by the fashion industry well into 2020.
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A large bulk of the fashion industry is feeling pretty smug with itself. The just-gone G7 summit in Biarritz, France, a meeting of the world’s largest economies, saw French President Emmanuel Macron, accompanied by Economy and Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Labour, Muriel Pénicaud, and Deputy Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition, Brune Poirson, launch the ‘Fashion Pact’. An initiative to minimise the environmental impact of the fashion industry, the Fashion Pact, signed by various fashion companies and brands, made numerous commitments regarding sustainability, renewable energy and biodiversity.
Left - Tall glass of Pinault?! The 'Fashion Pact' launch at the recent G7 summit
Making plenty of noise, and, while anything in the right direction, particularly while the Amazon rainforest is burning, is welcome, it’s worth looking at some of the detail.
Thirty two companies representing around 150 brands and roughly 30% of the fashion industry committed to:
“100% renewable energy across own operations with the ambition to incentivise implementation of renewables in all high impact manufacturing processes along the entire supply chain by 2030.”
“Protect the oceans: by reducing the fashion industry’s negative impact on the world’s oceans through practical initiatives, such as gradually removing the usage of single-use plastics.”
“Restore biodiversity: by achieving objectives that use Science-Based Targets to restore natural ecosystems and protect species.”
“Stop global warming: by creating and deploying an action plan for achieving the objective of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in order to keep global warming below a 1.5°C pathway between now and 2100.”
These all feel like the least they can do. Words like ‘gradually’ and ‘ambition’ make most of this wishful thinking. But, waiting until 2050 to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions is laughable. Most of the signatories will be dead by then. It’s 31 years away!!! Who’s to say any of these companies will still be in business?
We live in a very stressful and confusing time. Environmental paralysis is understandable amongst consumers not sure exactly what they can do to combat climate change. But, waiting until 2050 to ‘possibly’ make that new handbag zero carbon emissions ain’t one of them. Green lip service is becoming increasingly frustrating and brands are going to have to give definite and distinct decisions while updating consumers on progress and fact based information much faster than this. People want to see something.
The brands involved include adidas, Bestseller, Burberry, Capri Holding Limited, Carrefour, Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna, Everybody & Everyone, Fashion3, Fung Group, Galeries Lafayette, Gap Inc, Giorgio Armani, H&M Group, Hermès, Inditex, Karl Lagerfeld, Kering, La Redoute, matchesfashion.com, Moncler, Nike, Nordstrom, Prada Group, Puma, PVH Corp., Ralph Lauren, Ruyi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Selfridges Group, Stella McCartney and Tapestry.
In April 2019, ahead of the G7 meeting, Emmanuel Macron gave François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kering, a mission to bring together the leading players in fashion and textile, with the aim of setting practical objectives for reducing the environmental impact of their industry. And the Fashion Pact was born.
This goes someway to explain the most noticable luxury absentee from the list, the LVMH group. LVMH, Kering's main luxury competition, announced in May that it was partnering with Unesco on a five-year deal, allowing the fashion houses in the group access to “a network of experts at the regional level and in different disciplines to drive the development and success of their initiatives to protect biodiversity” and secure transparent supply chains. They’ve also recently cemented a tie-up with British designer Stella McCartney to lead their charge in sustainable luxury.
The majority of these brands don’t know what the eco-future looks like, but they know they need to start making the right noises yet want to continue to generate billions of dollars in yearly turnovers. Signing up to things like the ‘Fashion Pact’ focuses minds, but the time frame makes it a case of we’ll start tomorrow, which goes against the current urgent 'Climate Emergency' feeling felt within the wider population.
Kering issued a statement saying, “Private companies, working alongside nation states, have an essential role to play in protecting the planet. With the Fashion Pact, some leading players in the fashion and textile sector are joining forces for the first time to launch an unprecedented movement. A collective endeavour by its nature, the Fashion Pact is open to any company that wants to help to fundamentally transform the practices of the fashion and textile industry, and to meet the environmental challenges of our century.”
If these luxury companies worked as quickly as they did when chucking money at Notre-Dame, after its fire, then we’d really be getting somewhere. Pinault found €100m (£90m) down the back of the sofa and the Arnault family stumped up €200m within hours of the flames being put out.
Governments will need to bring in legislation much sooner to force these companies to do more. We’re going to look back at this period of history and wonder how we got through it sanely, but what we know is, we have to start today.