How Amazon’s secret weapon is wreaking havoc on Britain’s retailers

Black Friday sale © Getty Images
Black Friday makes little sense for UK retailers

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It’s a Christmas tradition, like hanging out your stocking or eating your sprouts or complaining about the moral decline represented by chocolate Advent calendars.

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a “high-street bloodbath” story on the front page.

But it seems that, courtesy of online retailer Asos, Christmas has come a week early for headline writers this year.

Though not for its shareholders.

Asos – the dream stock that can also be a total nightmare

Online clothes shop Asos is the stock that got away for many of us. It’s the Aim stock that everyone dreams of finding. It went public in 2001 at around 24p a share. You could have bought it for about 3p at its low point in 2003 following the tech bust.

If you’d bought then, and managed to hold on, you’d have made life-changing sums matched only by the likes of bitcoin. Even now, after yesterday’s profit warning, £1,000 invested back then in Asos would now be worth around £867,000.

Wow.

Of course, the chances of having actually hung on to that gain without panic-selling at some point are minuscule. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that no individual investor actually did it.

And what’s far more likely today is that a lot of investors are shaking their heads and looking at their portfolios, having made a big loss on their Asos holdings. Yesterday the company issued a profits warning, and the share price tumbled by a spectacular 37.6%.

Now, Asos is not a stock to own if you like a low-stress existence. For a start, it’s never been a cheap stock, and as such, it tends to fall hard if it disappoints investors. And it has frequently done so.

In 2012, a key warehouse suffered in a nearby explosion, destroying millions of pounds worth of stock just before Christmas. In March 2014, it issued a hefty profit warning – which saw the company lose about a third of its value in all – and in June that year, a fire broke out at its main warehouse.

So long-term investors may be used to a rollercoaster ride. But to lose nearly 40% of your investment in a day? That hurts.

So what happened? The company had been expecting full-year growth of 20-25%, with operating margins of 4%. Instead, growth is likely to be 15%, and worse, margins have been halved to 2%. In short, customers spent less.

“Average basket value is down 6%. Those are trends I’ve not seen for the best part of nine years”, chief executive Nick Beighton told analysts.

What’s proved particularly unnerving for the market is that this has only become clear in the past month. In October, Asos seemed happy enough with its trading.

And it’s not the first retail player to hint at trouble. Sports Direct has already warned that trading in November was “unbelievably bad”. Primark, Superdry and Bonmarche are among others who have come out with gloomy views. And Germany rival Zalando warned earlier in the year.

Amazon’s secret weapon – an imported festive tradition

What’s this all about? You could blame Brexit – it’s a marvellous excuse – but it’s impacted on Europe too.

You could blame the housing market, and that might be a factor. It’s becoming very clear that house prices are no longer going up by much, if at all. After years of soaring prices, British households now feel uncomfortable when their house isn’t earning more each year than they are. If the household’s main breadwinner isn’t pulling its weight anymore, then no wonder people are cutting back.

Yet while you can talk about weak consumer confidence, note that unemployment is at a record low and wages are improving. And stalling house prices are not something that just happened in November. So even if no one feels very cheery, the fundamentals are no worse than they were just a few months ago.

My suspicions point to one particular tradition which overseas retailers have foolishly imported from the States – Black Friday.

Black Friday makes sense in America – it’s effectively Boxing Day, but for Thanksgiving. So they’ve been doing it for ages, and both retailers and consumers are used to it.

But elsewhere in the world, shops and their customers are only just adapting to it. And I think that’s pretty confusing for all involved. If you bring the traditional Boxing Day sales forward to November, then I suspect you deflate buying appetite both in the early part of November, and in the run-up to Christmas.

A small example – I recently had to buy a new laptop for the Stepek household. I was going to do it at the start of November, and then realised it was “Black Friday” in a few weeks. So I delayed the purchase and bought it from the cheapest provider during the sale.

Here’s the truth – the craftiest move that Amazon ever made was to convince the rest of the retail world to take part in a festive sale without the festivity to go along with it.

Why is Christmas traditionally a good time of year for retailers? Because people want to buy nice shiny new gifts for one another. That means it is the best opportunity to sell stuff at full price, because the purchase is time-sensitive.

Want to destroy your profitability? Get involved in a heavy-discounting bunfight slap-bang ahead of what’s meant to be your busiest time of the year. Swap that period of profitable panic-buying in mid-December for a tightly-planned campaign of bargain-hunting at the end of November.

I suspect that this is what has really happened to Asos, even although it only warrants a passing mention – perhaps because that would highlight the reality, which is that its management handled Black Friday badly.

What does this mean for you as an investor? I only own one high-street retailer directly – Next (LSE: NXT). The company took a hit yesterday alongside the rest of the retail sector. But it pays a decent dividend, and trades on a low price/earnings ratio. And most importantly, it’s well managed. Retail is a fickle sector – hit by consumer mood swings, hot and cold weather, and industry upheaval. The only way to hedge against that at all is to have some faith in the ability of the people in charge to cope with change.

I’m going to be looking to top up before Boxing Day.

 

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