Retailers' sales return to growth in battered southern Europe

LONDON/PARIS Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:36am EST

The logo of Carrefour is seen at the entrance of the Carrefour's Bercy hypermarket in Charenton Le Pont, near Paris, August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The logo of Carrefour is seen at the entrance of the Carrefour's Bercy hypermarket in Charenton Le Pont, near Paris, August 29, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Sales at European retailers Carrefour (CARR.PA), Metro (MEOG.DE) and Dixons Retail (DXNS.L) have returned to growth in southern Europe as consumers start spending again after years of economic turmoil, austerity and job losses.

Europe's biggest retailer Carrefour said its sales in Spain grew in the fourth quarter for the first time since 2008, while French hypermarkets improved further, though at a slower pace than in the previous quarter.

Dixons, the continent's No. 2 electricals retailer, saw sales at its Greek business, Kotsovolos, rise 3 percent in the November 1-January 4 period, driven by its wholesale business. However, sales at retail stores that have been open for more than a year fell 8 percent.

"It's still quite tough in Greece and the market is still under pressure. We are beginning to see some evidence that it is flattening out," Chief Executive Sebastian James told reporters. "That business is going to come right."

The euro zone debt crisis began in Greece in 2010, forcing Athens to take a bailout under which the European Union and IMF demanded deep budget cuts, sending unemployment soaring and provoking violent protests. As speculation swirled in 2012 that Greece could abandon the euro, Dixons stockpiled security shutters to protect its nearly 100 stores in the country.

Recent data suggests the economy is on the brink of recovering from a six-year recession, boosted by a rebound in tourism and rising investment and exports.

However, Greek consumers' incomes have shrunk about 40 percent since the crisis began and in Athens the mood remains gloomy. Many poured into the capital's main shopping street at the start of the winter sales but few were buying, despite 50 percent discounts.

"People come, look, and leave. They have other priorities," said Katerina Graspa, 53, who is struggling to keep her household goods shop in business.

Dixons, which has been benefiting from strong demand for tablet computers, has sold off units in Turkey and Italy, but plans to stick with Greece as it is the market leader there, although the country accounts for a small part of group sales.

Shares in the British-based group were down about 6.25 percent by 1325 GMT after it gave a cautious outlook for the rest of the year, while Carrefour dipped 3.3 percent after the French retailer reported slowing growth in Brazil, its second-biggest market.

IMPROVING MOOD

Euro zone economic sentiment rose more than expected in December, as the mood improved in Spain and Italy more than in Germany and France, while industrial production rose in November at its fastest pace in nearly four years.

The southern periphery, where the crisis erased tens of thousands of jobs, saw some improvement as Spain's output returned to growth and Portugal's production rose 1.5 percent.

Metro AG (MEOG.DE), Europe's fourth-biggest retailer, said on Monday sales had grown slightly at its cash and carry businesses in Spain and Italy although like-for-like sales fell in its home market Germany.

Carrefour said quarterly sales rose 0.2 percent like-for-like in its third-largest market Spain, but the economic climate was still tough in Italy where they were down 5.9 percent.

Retailers across Europe have been struggling as shoppers' disposable income has been squeezed by subdued wage growth and the government austerity measures.

Recent Greek retail sales data suggests a slowdown in the slump but they remain volatile and there few signs of stabilization. The annual pace of decline in retail sales by volume slowed for a third straight month in October to 2.3 percent, from 14 percent in July.

Economists expect private consumption, the main driver of retail sales, to be the final element to recover in an economy hit by the record unemployment.

"There's a feeling that we'll never repay our debts. How can our mood change?" said mechanic Yannis Markos, 42, on his way to pay a bill. "Apart from car fuel I don't buy anything for myself."

Carrefour has been hurt by reliance on the hypermarket format it pioneered, as time-pressed customers shop more locally and online, and buy non-food goods from specialists.

On Tuesday, Carrefour's smaller French rival Casino (CASP.PA) said it expected sales at its domestic hypermarkets to return to growth in the next six months as it would reap the full benefits of earlier price cuts.

However, grocer Ahold (AHLN.AS) reported a steeper-than-expected decline in fourth-quarter sales as the U.S. food market contracted and customers spent less in its Dutch home market, dragging its shares down 3.5 percent.

($1 = 0.7356 euros)

(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Harry Papachristou in Athens; Writing by Emma Thomasson and Karolina Tagaris; editing by David Stamp)

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