World Economy

Hong Kong retail keeps posting consistent — bad — numbers

Navigating Hong Kong's luxury retail sector

The story for retail in Hong Kong is not exactly new, and it's not exactly rosy.

Continuing the decline for the 23rd month, the territory's retail sales for the month of January fell 0.9 percent on year. The drop is smaller than in December, but that could be the effect of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday falling in January rather than February.

The Hong Kong government supported this viewpoint, saying it would "be more meaningful to examine the figures for January and February combined, when available, to have a clearer picture of the underlying trend."

The slowdown in inbound tourism, the rise of e-commerce and sky-high rents have for a while squeezed business for Hong Kong retailers.

Now, the Hong Kong dollar (pegged to the U.S. dollar) has strengthened against the Chinese yuan, and is hurting business as well.

Dickie Wong, executive director of research at Kingston Financial Group, told CNBC that mainland Chinese shoppers are now opting to go to Europe instead of Hong Kong because currency changes mean the price difference between China and Hong Kong on big-ticket items has narrowed.

Billy H.C. Kwok | Bloomberg | Getty Images

And this could be the reason why luxury retailers are hit hardest in this downturn. For example, Hong Kong's January jewelry sales dropped 3.9 percent, compared to a 2.3 percent rise in the month before.

Jacques Branellec, CEO of Jewelmer, told CNBC Asia's "Squawk Box," "What we've seen in terms of the mainland luxury shoppers, a lot of them have actually migrated to Japan. So in our location in Ginza, we've seen a huge growth from the Chinese mainland tourists that we used to see in Hong Kong."

Looking forward, analysts' 2017 outlooks seem to be predicting stability — at best. And some say maybe worse is in store for retail numbers, going into the second half of this year with so many uncertainties. Starting in the third quarter, uncertainties abound around monetary policy from the U.S. Federal Reserve and the direction of the renminbi, according to Wong.

A Hong Kong government spokesman gave the same line from the previous month: "Looking ahead, the near-term outlook for the retail sales business will continue to depend on the performance of inbound tourism and on whether local consumer sentiment would be affected by the various uncertainties in the external environment."

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