* China restaurant sales down sharply
* Company warns of further China sales declines
* Shares tumble 5.6 pct in after-hours trade
* Microbloggers say poor China sentiment spreading
By Lisa Baertlein
Feb 4 (Reuters) - KFC parent Yum Brands Inc warned on Monday that it expects 2013 earnings to shrink rather than grow as it struggles to manage a food safety scare in China, and sees no return to growth in restaurant sales there until the fourth quarter.
The company’s shares fell 5.6 percent in after-hours trading, as Wall Street analysts and investors digested the disappointing news from the company that has been widely seen as a model for how to do business in the complex Chinese market.
“This is going to take all the experts they have in public relations to stem the tide. I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo said.
Yum reported a 6 percent drop in fourth-quarter sales at established restaurants in China due to “adverse publicity” regarding chemical residue found in some of its chicken supply.
Its China business continued to suffer in January, when same-store sales dropped 37 percent, including a 41 percent fall for KFC and a 15 percent decline for Pizza Hut Casual Dining.
The January data was likely affected by the timing of the Lunar New Year holidays, which fell in January last year, Yum said. The week-long holiday period, which will occur in February this year, typically boosts sales at restaurants and other tourist-related sectors.
Still, Yum expects China’s same-store sales to be down 25 percent for the fiscal first quarter, which includes only the full months of January and February. It said KFC same-store sales in China should turn up by the fourth quarter.
As a result, Yum forecast a “mid-single digit” percentage decline in earnings per share for 2013. Yum previously forecast 2013 earnings per share growth of at least 10 percent, and analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S on average had expected the same.
Yum has nearly 5,300 restaurants in China, mostly KFC, and the region accounts for more half its sales and 40 percent of total operating profit. Its strong reputation for high food quality helped it grow briskly in a country that has been rocked by serious and persistent food safety scandals.
Yum’s China sales first took a hit in mid-December when government food safety agencies began probing the company’s supply chain. The investigations were prompted by a report on China Central Television, which found that two of Yum’s suppliers purchased chickens from farmers who used excessive levels of antibiotics in their animals.
Yum stopped sourcing from one of those suppliers and cut purchases from a problematic plant used by the other.
Although the company was not fined by food safety authorities, it has suffered a widespread backlash in the mainstream media and on Weibo, China’s equivalent to the popular U.S. social media site Twitter.
A concern for Yum is that its other branded stores in China -- including Pizza Hut, Little Sheep hot pot and East Dawning Chinese fast-food -- may be tarnished by the KFC scandal.
“We need to be aware of all of the food and drinks brands which are under the Yum banner and totally avoid eating them,” wrote Weibo user ‘Precious Son Mi’.
Mi was not alone, as microbloggers took widely to Weibo to discuss Yum’s woes and post lists warning fellow users not to eat at Yum’s range of restaurant brands.
“I saw the news about Yum’s chicken just as I was eating at Pizza Hut. I think I better eat pizza elsewhere now,” added another Weibo user, Cyna_Dan.
“The scandal may have been about KFC and McDonald‘s, but we shouldn’t forget that Pizza Hut is also owned by Yum!” said Weibo user ‘Almost Empty’.
In early January, Yum apologized to customers in China over its handling of the food scare.
On Monday, it said it would begin an aggressive marketing campaign after the Lunar New Year on Feb. 10 to restore KFC’s brand image.
The company would do well to shake off all corporate “hubris” and fall on its sword, said branding expert Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys.
“If your same store sales are down by more than one-third, something’s not working,” Passikoff said.
Fourth-quarter net income at Yum fell to $337 million, or 72 cents per share, from $356 million, or 75 cents per share, a year earlier.
Excluding special items, Yum had a profit of 83 cents per share. That topped analysts’ average estimate by a penny, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Total revenue rose to $4.15 billion from $4.11 billion.
Through Monday’s close at $63.94, Yum shares were down 14 percent from late November, when they hit an all-time high, but then sank on the initial China sales warning.
Following Monday’s warning, after the regular market close, shares of Yum slid 5.6 percent in late trade to $60.33.