Zara owner has $10 bln for online shopping spree

Zara’s logo is displayed on a window, at one of the company’s largest stores in the world, in Madrid, Spain, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Juan Medina/File Photo

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LONDON, May 18 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Inditex (ITX.MC) has a chance to exact revenge on its online rivals. Despite a painful pandemic, the 64 billion euro fast-fashion retailer has amassed a war chest of more than 9 billion euros. Typically such spoils will trickle back to shareholders. For 38-year-old Chair Marta Ortega, buying an ailing online foe like 9 billion euro Zalando (ZALG.DE) might make more sense.

Inflation is taking a heavy toll on Ortega’s Spanish outfit. Since January, the Zara owner’s share price has shed over 25% as investors fret about consumers cutting back on handbags and shoes. Next (NXT.L) boss Simon Wolfson voiced similar concerns about discretionary spending on fashion and home decor. Germany’s Zalando went a step further and said its more cost-conscious customers were simply not interested in buying flashy togs.

Hoarding cash is part of Inditex’s crisis-management playbook. The company relies on its surprisingly plump balance sheet to spruce up supply chains, revamp tired stores and open new ones. Excess funds are doled out sparingly to investors via special dividends.

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Ortega has reason to be more daring. Thanks to its hyper-efficient operations, the owner of brands like Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear operates with a 25% EBITDA margin, compared to 19% for rival H&M (HMb.ST). Even with the spectre of inflation, sales are forecast to grow 5% a year for the next five years.

Removing a competitor and incorporating its digital savvy could turbocharge that growth once inflation subsides. Zalando’s online retail platform, which specialises in selling cheap clothes and shoes, has grown its top line by an average of 23% annually over the past five years. But now it looks cheap. Since January, Zalando shares have halved. After taking away net cash, Inditex trades at around 9 times its forecast EBITDA for the next 12 months. Zalando, which was trading as high as 30 times forward EBITDA in 2019, is now around the same level, comfortably its lowest valuation since listing eight years ago.

A swoop would still be an about-turn. To date, Inditex’s strategy for growth has been organic, steadily opening new stores in established markets like the United States. A sudden burst of inflation has given its young boss a reason to take a calculated risk.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

CONTEXT NEWS

– The chief executive of UK retailer Next said on May 5 that he was concerned that discretionary spending on clothing and homeware could be hit as a result of inflation.

– German online shopping platform Zalando on May 5 reported its first year-on-year decline in quarterly sales since it was founded in 2008. Co-CEO Robert Gentz said the main issue was “people just aren’t into buying fashion.”

– The CEO of Britain’s second largest supermarket group, J Sainsbury, said on April 28 that shoppers were “watching every penny” in response to the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since the 1950s.

– Zara owner Inditex’s net cash increased 24% in 2021 to 9.4 billion euros.

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Editing by Ed Cropley and Oliver Taslic

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Linda J. Picard

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