The Hang Lung Plaza in Shanghai. Photo: Xinhua

Global luxury brands slow store expansion on mainland China

Luxury brands hold back from expansion on the mainland as anti-corruption drive shrinks sales, affecting the rentals of mall operators

The glitzy romance between the landlords of mainland shopping centres and global luxury brands has entered a rocky patch as many top-end labels ease up on the pace of store openings in the key market.

The caution comes amid flat sales growth. Property analysts say the pace of store openings will continue to slow this year, despite the priority given to mainland expansion several years ago.

" A key reason is that the anti-corruption measures in China have curtailed the use of public funds for high-priced gifts. Meanwhile, for the more aspirational and price-sensitive customer groups, where there is still spending growth driven by rising incomes, they are increasingly going to Hong Kong or other low-tax destinations to buy luxury goods," said Steven McCord, a director of China retail research at Jones Lang LaSalle, Shanghai.

Sebastian Skiff, an executive director at CBRE Retail - Asia, said the price differential between the mainland and other markets became a bigger hurdle when consumers were buying for personal use, as opposed to purchases as business gifts.

Sales of luxury goods on the mainland edged up 2 per cent last year from 2012 to 116 billion yuan (HK$148 billion), according to consultancy Bain & Co. Sales grew 7 per cent in 2012.

According to a research report by Knight Frank and Woods Bagot released last month, 65 per cent of the international luxury brands they monitored missed their targets for store openings last year. Gucci, which had planned to open 10 stores, did not open any. Prada targeted seven stores but added only four. Burberry opened eight instead of 11.


"It's important to note that luxury retail sales growth has declined, not luxury retail sales values, which have still shown small but positive growth," said Paul Hart, an executive director for Greater China at Knight Frank. "In the primary cities, this may translate into a slowdown in rental growth in the luxury property sector, not necessarily a drop in rents."

Knight Frank expects rents in prime shopping centres in main cities to increase 5 to 10 per cent this year. Growth was 10 per cent for the past two years.

Industry players say the slowdown in the luxury sector would not necessarily hit top-tier mall landlords.

Ronnie Chan Chichung, the chairman of Hang Lung Properties, which has a number of luxury shopping centres on the mainland, said the slowdown in expansion meant retailers would pick the best mall operators. His view that Hang Lung will be among those selected is shared at Jones Lang LaSalle.


"When we score the various properties a retailer could enter in mainland cities, the top line retail developers are always the safest bet: Sun Hung Kai Properties, Hang Lung, Swire Properties, China Resources, and the like. They have the ability to build, and more importantly, to operate on a long-term basis, a top-line scheme," McCord said.

A senior executive of a foreign shopping mall operator said that instead of opening new stores in second or third-tier cities, luxury retailers had been consolidating their resources in first-tier cities. "Base rents may be lower, but we can achieve strong additional rents in accordance with sales turnover. There are still a large number of super rich who buy luxury watches for investment, rather than gifting," she said.


Amid the slowdown in luxury sales, some mall landlords are looking for other tenant types. Those offering "light" luxury , or so-called affordable luxury, along with fast-fashion retailers, are seeing a lot more growth, property consultants say.

They say the rapid growth of the food and beverage industry shows no signs of abating. More mall space will go towards the sector in a trend that will shrink allocations to fashion operators.

"The food and beverage trade generally pays less rent. This inevitably leads to lower average rent per square metre for the malls," McCord said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Top-end shops take stock amid slowdown