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What Richemont's Sales Miss Says About Luxury Sector

Two women look at a jewelry display in a luxury shopping mall in Shanghai. Following in the footsteps of Japan, China has become the world's second-largest consumer of high-end fashion, accessories and luxury goods.
Phillipe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
Two women look at a jewelry display in a luxury shopping mall in Shanghai. Following in the footsteps of Japan, China has become the world's second-largest consumer of high-end fashion, accessories and luxury goods.

The latest earnings from luxury goods group Richemont could signal a wider trend of changing consumer trends in Asia, though economic growth should help buoy the luxury goods market, experts told CNBC.

On Monday morning, Richemont shares fell 6.1 percent after the maker of Cartier jewelry gave a cautious outlook and its sales growth missed forecasts on slowing wholesale demand.

Sales rose 5 percent year-on-year in the October to December period to 2.86 billion euros ($3.8 billion). Analysts had forecast a 7.6 percent rise. The Swiss group said that growth had slowed in all regions, except the Americas.

"Richemont have consistently beat expectations until now and it has a much bigger wholesale business than some of its peers…and the companies [it sells to] have been a little cautious in terms of their orders because of what you've seen over the last 6 to 9 months," Rahul Sharma, managing director at Neev Capital, told CNBC.

(Read More: Rich Shoppers Are as Bargain-Hungry as Less Affluent)

"But I'd be a little bit cautious [on these earnings], this is a very rare miss for Richemont."

Richemont said the rate of wholesale growth fell to 2 percent in the last three months of 2012 from 8 percent in the April to September period due to caution by retailers in Hong Kong and mainland China.

All That Glitters is Not Gold?

"The trend is a little bit worrying in Asia," according to Allegra Parry, managing director of luxury goods research at Cantor Fitzgerald. "We have the first flat sales growth result in the quarter, which is the slowest they've ever had in the last few years, which is a little worrying," she told CNBC.

However, she added that luxury retail penetration in the Chinese market would recover as the economy is seen improving.

"As a whole, luxury [growth] tends to be highly correlated to GDP growth – typically, it grows two to three times GDP growth. That correlation can break down in an emerging market… as weaker numbers have come out of China recently… but I think we will continue to see the sector do well" as China improves, she said.

Much of the growth in luxury goods sales has been driven by the increasing number of affluent consumers in Asia and hence a slowdown in the Chinese economy has affected investor and consumer sentiment.

Sharma also noted that retail sales were bouncing back broadly across the luxury sector in China. "Burberry, which is a much bigger retailer of luxury goods, has actually shown a pickup in recent months, particularly after the Chinese elections, which is positive," he said, adding luxury jeweler Tiffany had also seen a rebound.

Tiffany reported stagnant holiday sales in Japan, Europe and the U.S. but same-store sales increased 7 percent in the same period in China.

A Word of Caution

Sharma however sounded a word of caution about an increasingly brand-aware consumer in Asia, citing the fluctuating fortunes of fashion labels Prada and Burberry. The former experienced robust growth in Asia, posting a 36.5 percent jump in first-half revenue in 2012, while Burberry's sales fell during the Chinese slowdown before recovering in the three months to December 2012 (when Asia-Pacific sales increased 15 percent).

(Read More: Chinese Consumers Shun Brands That Are Too Popular)

"Bling for the sake of bling isn't going to work," he said. "Luxury goods are no longer a rising tide floating all boats. Consumers are becoming much more discerning . It used to be that you just put up a store in China and you won, now the Chinese consumers themselves are being quite choosy in terms of the brands they like -- they like iconic stuff."

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