Uniqlo-owner Fast Retailing faces uncertainty despite record profits

Customers exit a Uniqlo store, operated by Fast Retailing Co., in Tokyo, Japan.

Akio Kon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Japan’s Fast Retailing could see a “period of slow growth” despite recently announcing record profits, according to one analyst that spoke to CNBC on Friday.

The firm, which owns apparel giant Uniqlo, said Thursday that it had booked record profit for the third-straight year, sending shares about 2.5% higher in Friday trading. Operating profit rose 9.1% in the year ended Aug. 31, in line with market expectations.

But the retailer’s profit forecast missed expectations. Fast Retailing projected operating profits would grow 6.7% in fiscal 2020, well below the 15% growth analysts polled by Refinitiv had estimated.

“It’s a great, great name, great brand but there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Peter Boardman, managing director at NWQ Investment Management, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday. “Things are slowing down.”

Recent data have pointed to a slowing Chinese economy after years of rapid growth, with concerns that the worst may not be over.

“Remember, 35% of their profits come out of China. So any sort of slowdown in China is certainly negatively affecting Fast Retailing or Uniqlo,” Boardman said.

China has been a major growth market for Fast Retailing. Earlier this year, the retailer said it expects sales from the greater China region to hit 1 trillion yen (about $9.26 billion) by fiscal 2022. That would be nearly double the 502.5 billion yen (roughly $4.65 billion) in sales the company reported for fiscal 2019.

Fast Retailing also faces challenges stemming from Tokyo’s ongoing trade dispute with Seoul, which has resulted in South Korean consumers boycotting Japanese products. That’s a risk that Fast Retailing Chief Executive Tadashi Yanai highlighted as “serious.”

In fiscal 2019, the company said its South Korea business reported a decline in both revenue and profit. Fast Retailing also forecast “large declines” in the country for fiscal 2020.

NWQ’s Boardman said South Korea accounts for about 3% of Fast Retailing’s revenues, a figure that was “not material” but at the same time a “significant amount of money.”

Going forward, Boardman said the pace of new store openings will be “a lot slower” than before, but added that it was “just a sign of a maturing company.”

Potential of e-commerce and India

But Boardman said there’s growth opportunity in the firm’s efforts both online and in India.

“Currently about 12% of revenues are online, they want to grow that to 30%,” he said. “That certainly is a great opportunity but it’s a slow opportunity and probably won’t grow as quickly.”

“It’s really tough for a lot of retailers to go online,” Boardman said, as a lot of it is around “branding” and the ability for firms to compete against online retail giants like Amazon and Rakuten.

“Fast Retailing has enough of a brand to be able … to be successful,” the analyst said. “Their products are great, their product line-up is great.”

The company also recently opened its first store in India, a country that Boardman said is a “great opportunity.”

“They have low priced products to be able to attract Indians but it’s still very early days,” he said, noting that Fast Retailing “wasn’t that successful” in its past attempts to “aggressively grow” in Europe.

“It’s gonna be a 10-year opportunity but … you have to start somewhere,” he said.

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