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Twentysomething Asos is looking more fragile than agile

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After two decades as a public company, you’d think Asos, “the world’s leading fashion destination for twentysomethings”, would be showing signs of maturity and stability by now. But it isn’t. A pattern keeps repeating: every time the online retailer appears to have achieved lift-off in profits and share price, disaster strikes.

Back in 2014, the problem was a hit to margins for a few years to fund investment: the stock collapsed from £70 to £20 in no time. By 2018, optimism had returned as £100m of annual profits were seen for the first time and the shares soared to £77. Cue woes with new warehouses in Atlanta and Berlin and a plunge to £22.

Now it’s happened again with the pandemic. The whoosh of lockdown demand had carried the shares to £59 in spring last year but, after Thursday’s humdinger of a profits warning, they are just 784p, down a third on the day.

The problem this time, apparently, is punters returning more orders, creating extra hassle and expense for the company in the sorting department. Mat Dunn, chief operating officer, blamed inflationary pressures, by which he means more consumers inspecting their bank balances and deciding, on reflection, they’ll give the new dress a miss. His theory may be correct, but Asos almost encourages such behaviour by making returns free. There are no plans to change the model; perhaps there should be.

A new chief executive and chairman are in place to lead the latest attempt at recovery. The former, José Antonio Ramos Calamonte, described Asos an “agile” company, but fragile would be closer to the mark. After profits of £194m last year, this year’s outcome is now forecast to be £20m-£60m. When your revenue line will be £4bn-ish, it ain’t much.

The fast fashion revolutionaries, of which Asos was the pioneer, have undoubtedly changed shopping habits and the shape of an entire industry. What they have yet to prove is that they can make decent returns on capital reliably. Remarkably, today’s Asos’s share price was first seen as long ago as 2010, when the company was a 20th of its current size in revenue terms. That’s a lot of growth for no reward.

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