Jun 17, 2015
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Brutal retail market awaits buyer of Tesco South Korea business

Jun 17, 2015

Any buyer of Tesco's $6 billion South Korea unit will need a strategy to boost returns in a lethargic and saturated market for traditional retailers, likely involving real estate sales and a greater focus on Internet shopping.

Britain's Tesco has hired HSBC to advise on a potential sale of its South Korean unit, Homeplus, Reuters reported this month, in what could be Asia-Pacific's largest private equity deal and the No. 2 merger in the Asian consumer sector.

Given the scarcity of big buyout targets in Asia, the sale is generating strong interest among buyout firms including KKR & Co and Carlyle Group, sources with knowledge of the sale process said. That's despite difficulties posed by South Korea's crowded retail sector, a sluggish and fast-aging economy, plus regulatory and labour challenges.

"Anyone going with the view of closing unprofitable shops, cutting work force, will be in for a surprise," a senior Hong Kong-based investment banker familiar with the process said, citing likely opposition from labour unions.

"It's a tough market but there are some low-hanging fruits in terms of stripping property assets," said the banker, who declined to be identified as the discussions are confidential.

Homeplus Co Ltd's property holdings, consisting mainly of stores, had a book value of 3.09 trillion won ($2.77 billion) as of the end of February, according to a regulatory filing.

With about 400 stores including 140 hypermarkets, 88 of which it owns, Homeplus has raised about 1.2 trillion won since 2012 by selling and leasing back eight of its biggest-selling stores, according to South Korean deal website Invest Chosun.

Its prime real estate holdings include a hypermarket in densely populated Seoul suburb Euijeongbu, which frequently ranks among its top 5 stores by sales.
But it's a crowded field. South Korea has nearly 500 hypermarkets for a population of 50 million, or twice what the industry considers optimal. The difficulties prompted Carrefour and Wal-Mart to quit the country in 2006.

In a nod to a fiercely competitive market, Homeplus earlier this year sacrificed an equivalent of about 100 billion won in annual profit, or almost half of last year's earnings, by cutting prices on some 500 kinds of fresh produce.

"Competing by undercutting price has become the norm and is expected to continue in future," said Lee Kyoung-hee, principal researcher at Shinsegae Research Institute.


As the population ages faster than in any other developed economy and households shrink, retail sales in South Korea grew just 1.4 percent in each of the past two years, lagging broader economic growth.

E-commerce, however, jumped 17 percent last year to 45.2 trillion won, or 14 percent of total retail sales, and hypermarkets have been scrambling to build share in a fragmented online segment where most players lose money.

Homeplus' share of South Korea's online retail market has risen steadily but was still just 645 billion won last year, according to Euromonitor data in a CLSA report, for market share of just 2 percent, in line with larger rival E-Mart.

"Hypermarket chains like Homeplus have been bolstering online sales as a possible growth solution, among admittedly few options," said Kim Tae-hong, analyst at Yuanta Securities Korea.

Lower priced warehouses have been another bright spot for Korean retailers, but while both E-Mart and Lotte Shopping's third-placed Lotte Mart have warehouse brands, Homeplus does not.

Meanwhile total revenues for existing hypermarket stores have declined since 2012 when new rules required them to close for two Sundays a month to protect traditional markets. Homeplus saw a drop in same-store sales for two straight years.

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