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Retailers Start Usefully Quantifying Virus Impact

Andrea Felsted
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Retailers Start Usefully Quantifying Virus Impact

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As measures to curb the coronavirus heap pressure on the global retail sector, observers have struggled to quantify the economic ramifications. There are signs that affected companies are offering some useful disclosure that may in turn help sentiment. 

Adidas AG last week outlined a roughly $1 billion reduction in first quarter sales and $500 million impact on operating profit, but that was before many countries outside Asia started taking aggressive steps in response to the crisis.

Now Next Plc has provided more expansive detail about how it sees the months ahead. With shares in most retailers in freefall – Next is down about 40% this year – investors needed to hear something constructive. While the U.K. fashion chain said it could not give guidance for the full year, it has produced a stress test that outlines potential outcomes.

In a worst-case scenario, full-price sales would be down by about 1 billion pounds ($1.16 billion), a quarter of its total, which would mean pre-tax profits of just 55 million pounds for the financial year (against 729 million pounds in the year earlier).

The company has also set out how it might cope with the crisis financially, given the possibility of extended store closures. It could suspend buy-backs and dividends, delay capital expenditure, sell and lease a warehouse and partly securitize customer debts. Pulling these levers could provide an extra 835 million of cash. Bringing forward its forthcoming sale, and pushing back deliveries of stock would free up another 100 million pounds.

These projections exclude any use of government lending or measures to help pay wages, and Next is conservatively assuming no rent reductions from landlords.

This disclosure dashboard sets a good example for others to follow. But Next can afford to be upfront with its investors. It is one of the strongest retailers in the U.K. sector.

Similarly, Burberry Group Plc provided some near-term clarity, warning that fourth-quarter comparable sales in its stores would be down by 30%, with a 70-80% decline in the final weeks through to its March 31 financial year-end. Like Next, the luxury group has a strong balance sheet, with the company forecasting a cash balance of 600 million pounds before lease obligations.

It is understandable why weaker chains may be less willing to quantify the impact on their businesses. But their investors will expect a similar assessment of possible scenarios. And larger, well-resourced chains have no such excuse for not saying more.

Take Inditex SA, the world’s biggest clothing retailer. It said the outbreak had cut its sales by 24% between March 1 and March 16. But it didn’t outline the potential full-year impact. This is from a company with record net cash of 8.1 billion euros ($8.7 billion) at January 31.

There will be many more tough announcements over coming weeks as retailers and restaurants outline the financial cost of what is happening now. But even if they can’t make exact predictions, they should learn from Next’s example and aim to at least give the market a toolkit for understanding the resilience of their business. Next shares’ strong gain in a falling market on Thursday suggests transparency is rewarded.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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