Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

The Brics have lost their bounce, and the Mints (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) are no longer fresh. For Europe's big consumer goods groups, developed markets are where the action is, though some companies look better placed than others.

The U.S. is promising. Nestle said Thursday it was its best-performing region last year, with organic growth of 5.5 percent. Cosmetics giant L'Oreal and liquor-maker Pernod Ricard have shown U.S. consumers are willing spenders, at least on products that chime with what they want.

Europe's proving trickier. Beiersdorf, the maker of Nivea skincare and La Prairie face creams, said this week that organic sales in western Europe fell 0.3 percent in 2015. Yet for Nestle, even a sluggish Europe was better than Asia. There, organic growth was just 0.5 percent because of a recall of its Maggi noodles in India and slower growth in China.

The star among European consumer goods companies is Reckitt Benckiser, which realized sooner than most that a decent developed-market strategy was crucial to offset problems in newer climes. True, it's far smaller than Nestle and doesn't depend on lackluster food categories. But its shift from lower-growth, lower-margin homecare products toward lucrative over-the-counter healthcare products -- less dependent on the economic cycle -- is a model worth following. 

Nestle's also building positions in more promising areas such as nutrition, but with less impressive results so far as the charts below show:

Faster Growth...
Nestle's beverages and chocolate sales are growing quicker than other segments
Bloomberg data
... And Slower
Nestle organic growth in dairy, prepared dishes and nutrition
Bloomberg data

As Reckitt and L'Oreal are proving, a successful hunt for developed market growth isn't just a matter of moving into a promising category and expecting the best. Companies must be adept at developing innovative products that appeal to demanding consumers, whether that's gluten-free frozen meals, hipster instant coffee or make-up targeted at the selfie generation.

This puts a strong emphasis on cost control, with Nestle saying on Thursday it's been plowing some "significant" savings back into promotional and marketing activities. CEO Paul Bulcke said the priority for the company's handsome cash flows -- 11.2 percent of sales -- would be re-investment rather than share buybacks.

Despite a 3 percent decline in Nestle shares on Thursday, the food sector has been favored by investors over the past few years, with investors getting a taste for its defensive qualities in an uncertain world. 

High Expectations
Nestle's price to earnings ratio has tracked its peers upwards
Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

But while the food groups' performance has been respectable, Reckitt and L'Oreal show the rewards for consumer goods-makers if the right formula is found in developed markets. Reckitt's enterprise value is almost 18 times estimated 2016 earnings, while L'Oreal's more than 15 times. Nestle and fellow food giant Unilever are both below 14 times. Both are buying assets with more appeal to choosy shoppers, such as Unilever's purchase of skincare group Dermalogica. If they want to break from the pack, they do need to show they get the "millennial" mindset.

Sharing a Plate
Shares of big European food groups have tracked each other recently
Bloomberg data

 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net