Consumer

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

Spending looks like it will never go out of style at Zalando SE.

The online fashion retailer said on Thursday that sales growth would be in the upper half of the 20-25 percent forecast for this year. In contrast, the profit margin, on an adjusted earnings before interest and tax basis, would be in the lower half of its 5-6 percent range.

Investment in new facilities as well as speeding up delivery and returns is weighing on profitability.

Big Spenders
Online retailers must invest to maintain their high growth rates
Source: Company reports, Bloomberg Intelligence
2017 is company forecast. Zalando year end: December 31 2017, Asos: August 31 2017, Boohoo: February 28 2018.

It’s a familiar story.

As Gadfly has argued, although online fashion sales growth is outstripping that in stores -- bricks and mortar fashion retailers would kill for more than 20 percent expansion -- that sort of momentum comes at a cost.

And Zalando is not alone in having to dig deep into its pockets. Asos Plc said earlier this week it had agreed to open a new U.S. warehouse, while even fast-growing Boohoo.com Plc will almost double capital expenditure this year.

With Amazon encroaching ever further into fashion, existing apparel retailers have little choice but to fight back. Zalando deserves credit for trying to defend itself.

The latest initiative is breaking into the wholesale market, where fashion labels sell their garments to third-party retailers. According to co-Chief Executive Officer Rubin Ritter, this segment is ripe for digital disruption. The company is already working with Danish fast-fashion retailer Bestseller, and this business-to-business division could become another revenue stream for Zalando.

And Zalando said that after a pause, its looking at expanding into new geographies and categories of products.

But all this adds to the future need for investment in systems and infrastructure.

Indeed, Zalando has already increased its forecast for full-year capital expenditure from 200 million euros ($234.4 million) to 250 million euros, excluding acquisitions. And it announced fresh projects on Thursday: two large fulfillment centers in Poland and Italy. 

Ritter believes online growth will be significant enough to justify the investment.

Investors however are taking a dimmer view. Zalando trades at a discount to both Asos and Boohoo on an enterprise value to forecast sales basis. That looks deserved given the threat from Amazon and pressures on profitability. 

Not So Rose Tinted
Zalando's valuation lags online fashion rivals
Source: Bloomberg

The shares are up 10 percent so far this year, but short interest has also increased since January.

Short Skirt
Hedge funds have increased their short positions in Zalando this year
Source: IHS Markit

Ritter may well turn out to be right about the brighter prospects in the long term. But battling to stay one step ahead of online adversaries will come at a hefty price. To ensure profit doesn't get squeezed any further, Zalando needs to make sure its execution is as on-trend as its big spending. 

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:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net