Carrefour Again Becoming Wal-Mart's Chief Rival

Tickers in this article: COST WMT

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Wal-Mart  strategy of expanding overseas has a cautionary tale in Carrefour, the French-based discounter that has often gone where Wal-Mart feared to tread.

When in Chengdu, China almost five years ago, for instance, I stopped at a Carrefour, a Wal-Mart being unavailable. It was similar to the Wal-Marts of 20 years ago, with merchandise heaped up in bins, close together, prices advertised above, and crowds of shoppers pawing through everything.

Around that time we were reporting that Carrefour's sales were "slowing." Subsequently, that slowing turned into a rout, from which the company is only now recovering. Had I bought Carrefour stock back then, I'd have just about broken even by now. Wal-Mart, by contrast, is up 71%.

Global retailing is hard.

Even Carrefour recognizes that, because its latest strategy is focused on its "home" market of Europe, buying the malls where many of its "hypermarkets" sit.

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This week the company announced it has put together a joint venture with private investors to buy 127 malls in France, Italy and Spain, throwing 45 malls it already owns in France into the pot, and taking 42% of the resulting deal.

The joint venture is paying 2 billion euros for the malls, and expecting 172 million euros in rent the first year, which my calculator calls a yield of about 8.6%. The hope is that by investing another 100 million euros per year into the properties the venture can bring that yield up.

The "hypermarket" concept is, as noted, very similar to Wal-Mart, which prefers greenfield sites for its stores. Carrefour's strategy of putting its markets into existing malls is similar to what Costco  has been doing lately in the U.S.

How is that working out? Carrefour has been in "turnaround" mode for several years, suffering successive years of lower revenue that cost CEO Lars Olofsson his position early in 2012. Under Olofsson the stock had a hard fall in 2011, going from a high of about 36 euros to a low in the midteens.

His replacement is Georges Plassat, who has been selling operations in places like Greece and Columbia, focusing on more mature retail markets, where its sourcing and distribution channels may have an advantage.

This has powered the stock forward since his appointment, from about 13 euros to its present price of more than 27 euros.

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