UPDATE 2-Richemont's expanding retail business boosts sales
* Third-quarter sales up 9 pct at constant currencies
* Analysts in poll had expected 11.9 pct rise
* Company says wholesale retailers in Asia still cautious (Adds comments by analysts, further details, share price)
By Silke Koltrowitz
ZURICH Jan 16 (Reuters) - Luxury goods group Richemont maintained the pace of its sales growth in the last three months, it reported on Thursday, as demand for its IWC watches, Cartier jewellery and other brands in its retail outlets more than offset a still subdued wholesale business.
Richemont's total global sales in the last three months rose 9 percent at constant exchange rates or 3 percent at actual rates to 2.941 billion euros ($4 billion).
Sales for the first nine months were also up 9 percent at 8.265 billion francs, a 4 percent rise based on actual exchange rates.
Growth in the wholesaling business in the third quarter of only 3 percent at constant exchange rates, was well below the 14 percent growth seen in its steadily expanding retail operation, reflecting caution amongst business partners particularly in the Asia Pacific region, Richemont said.
Sellers of luxury products like Richemont are grappling with weak demand in China, where the government's anti-bribery campaign has hit conspicuous consumption and gift-giving, with overall Swiss watch exports to China down 15 percent in the first 11 months of last year.
Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet said the lack of comment on the outlook in Richemont's trading statement on Thursday would weigh on the shares that nose-dived in December after cautious comments on the global economy by main shareholder Johann Rupert, but recovered after peer Swatch Group's upbeat outlook last week.
The shares were down 1.8 percent at 86.95 Swiss francs by 1114 GMT, after dropping as much as 4 percent in early trade, valuing the shares at 17 times forward earnings, a premium to Swatch at 16.1 times and LVMH at 16.3 times.
But J.Safra Sarasin analyst Patrick Hasenboehler said the shares were still attractively valued in light of the growth potential and cash generation.
Swatch said last week it expected double-digit sales growth in 2014 after sales rose 9.1 percent in 2013, while U.S. jeweller Tiffany took a rather cautious stance despite strong U.S. holiday sales.
"Richemont missed expectations ... but compared with peers, its performance still shines," said Zuercher KB analyst Patrik Schwendimann, who rates the stock a 'buy'. He noted that Tiffany's sales grew 8 percent in November and December, while Swatch only had organic growth of 5.2 percent in the second half.
Richemont said sales in the Americas were up 12 percent in the third quarter, at constant exchange rates, driven by robust retail demand in particular for jewellery and at the group's online retailer Net-a-Porter, while sales in Europe and the Middle East were up 9 percent on strong demand from tourist shoppers.
Sales in Asia Pacific, which ranks marginally above Europe and the Middle East as its biggest market by region, were up just 6 percent with lower sales in mainland China being the main drag, the company said.
But Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox said it was just a matter of time before independent Chinese retailers started re-ordering again. "We are closer to dawn than dusk in China," he said. ($1=0.7356 euros) (Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Greg Mahlich)