Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Stockholm — One of H&M’s largest shareholders has lost its patience.

Skandia’s actively managed funds have spent the past months selling off most of its stake in Hennes & Mauritz after watching the fashion retailer struggle with weakening sales in its physical stores and intensifying online competition. The Swedish savings and insurance giant says there is a raft of issues H&M would need to address before it will consider investing again.

"There’s so much they need to do that I don’t think they’ll solve this quickly," Erik Sjostrom, who oversees more than $3bn as a senior portfolio manager at Skandia, told Bloomberg.

H&M, whose biggest shareholder is the billionaire Persson family that started the company in 1947, sank more than 30% last year. This year, the stock is down about 7%.

The world’s second-largest fashion chain by sales (after Zara-owner Inditex) needs to start prioritising profitability over growth and present a credible plan for tackling online competition, Sjostrom says.

It also needs to cut its dividend, reduce the number of stores in mature markets and focus on getting its product mix and price levels right, as well as reducing or writing off excess inventory that gets in the way of new trends hitting its shelves, he says.

H&M has said it feels confident it can fix its "disappointing" sales history. Management is working on building its online presence, creating new brands, improving its shops and fixing inventory issues with better technology.

H&M’s problems partly stem from its slowness to adapt to a digital age in which consumers increasingly shop online. As recently as a year ago, its main target was to grow its physical store network by between 10%-15% annually. As it became clear more shoppers wanted to make their purchases online, H&M changed that goal to aim instead for annual sales growth of between 10%-15%, including online commerce. Its digital sales have increased, but H&M still faces stiff competition from multi-brand and free shipping platforms like Zalando and Asos.

Analysts also appear to be losing their patience. Of those who provide their H&M ratings data to Bloomberg, 51% are now advising clients to sell the shares. That’s the most negative overall analyst view since at least early 2003, according to Bloomberg data. The average 12-month analyst price target has dropped to the lowest since early 2009.

Skandia’s funds, including its index-tracking funds, have sold a total of 1.26-million H&M shares in the past year and now hold 2.8-million shares, or 0.2% of the share capital (Skandia’s pension arm holds about additional H&M shares.)

Sjostrom says Skandia’s actively managed funds now have "almost nothing left" in H&M. The fund manager says he is unlikely to start buying again until H&M shows it understands the new market in which it operates, including the need to make products available at external online marketplaces.

"Why go to H&M, where you can only buy H&M? If you go to Zalando, you can buy a whole bunch of brands," he said. "You need to be on these platforms."

While H&M is working to address that issue in part by extending a co-operating agreement with Alibaba Group’s Tmall in China, Sjostrom says that is not enough. Even if the company is growing online, it is "still losing too much in stores," he says.

The rise of low-cost retailers such as Associated British Foods’ Primark and Fast Retailing’s Uniqlo poses another problem. H&M virtually invented the business of low-cost, fast-fashion retail in the early 1990s, but is these days neither the fastest nor the cheapest brand.

"The market is changing very quickly, and H&M needs to figure out a new way to keep up with these developments," Sjostrom said. "If they show how they’re going to fix it in a few years, then it could become an investment opportunity again."

Bloomberg

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