STOCKHOLM Swedish fashion group Hennez & Mauritz (H&M) (HMb.ST) posted a third straight monthly fall in sales at established stores in November as economic woes and unusually warm autumn weather across its main markets kept customers away from the shops.
With the euro zone deep in a debt crisis and global economic growth looking sluggish, consumers have held back on spending instead of splurging on new fashion items. Meanwhile, unseasonable temperatures have limited the demand for winter wear.
In November, sales at comparable H&M stores -- open for a year or more -- fell 1 percent, missing a mean forecast for a 0.4 percent rise in a Reuters poll of analysts. Forecasts ranged between minus 4 and plus 4 percent.
"It indicates that they are growing roughly in line with the market. It seems quite reasonable, but we had expected they would grow slightly faster," said Christian Anderson, an analyst at Swedbank.
Total turnover at the world's second biggest apparel retailer, which recently launched a collection by Italian fashion icon Donatella Versace, rose 9 percent in local currencies in November, missing the poll average of a 10.2 percent rise.
"I was a bit disappointed this morning. We saw Inditex's third quarter yesterday, and they managed to increase both sales and earnings more than H&M," said Nicolaj Jeppesen, an analyst at Sydbank.
Sales at H&M rival Inditex (ITX.MC) eased in its fiscal third quarter but returned to normal growth in the first six weeks of the fourth quarter, starting November 1, the owner of the Zara brand said on Wednesday.
"To me it's quite surprising since we know that H&M are doing some heavy discounting and a lot of campaign work. We got the impression that Inditex didn't discount as much," Jeppesen said.
Shares at H&M, which provides no comment with its monthly sales, were down 0.67 percent at 0901 GMT, underperforming a 0.5 percent gain in the European retail sector .SXRP.
Sales in comparable stores at H&M have fallen for the past six months with the exception of August, when they were flat, reflecting weaker consumer confidence globally.
U.S. retail sales grew at their slowest pace in five months in November, tempering expectations for a strong Christmas shopping season. In the euro area, October retail sales rose slightly on the month, but economists said future prospects were poor.
H&M, with almost 2,500 stores in 43 countries, is often seen as better positioned to cope with a downturn than many others, thanks to its geographic spread and focus on catwalk fashion at low prices.
But analysts fear that the unusually warm weather across many markets this autumn has dented consumer appetite for new winter coats and knitwear, leading to more markdowns that might hurt profit margins in the fourth quarter and beyond.
"I expect the margins to be lower than those of Inditex and what we normally see from H&M. I expect an EBIT margin of around 18 percent (in the fourth quarter). They have delivered above 20 in the past," Jeppesen said, citing markdowns and high cotton prices.
In H&M's fiscal fourth quarter to November, sales excluding value-added tax rose to 30.9 billion Swedish crowns ($4.4 billion) from 29.7 billion a year earlier and below 31.4 billion crowns seen in a Reuters poll.
Full fourth-quarter results are due on January 26.
($1 = 7.0180 Swedish crowns)
(Additional reporting by Oskar von Bahr; Editing by Hans-Juergen Peters)