America’s top brands sweat next step in Trump’s China trade war

An advertising hoarding for Nike in Shanghai. (Bloomberg pic)

NEW YORK: America’s corporate bosses could be excused if they don’t agree with President Donald Trump’s boasts that a trade war is “easy to win.” They can just reflect on the levers of pain China pulled against South Korean-owned businesses last year to imagine a state-nudged boycott against Starbucks or shutdown of Nike’s factories.

China vows to retaliate against all US tariffs but hasn’t announced a response to Trump’s proposal to put duties on another US$200 billion in Chinese imports next month. Since that’s more than the value of all US exports to China, the Asian nation will need more than tit-for-tat tariffs to punch back.

If China employs a similar strategy to the one used when its neighbour installed a missile defence system – shuttering stores and factories owned by South Korean companies and stoking boycotts – a slew of US brands could pay dearly. That’s because China is both an essential supplier and also the biggest growth market for many US companies.

Some brands with a lot to lose:

Just last year, China showed that it wasn’t afraid to poke Nike when a program on state-run television criticised it for false advertising. That’s troubling for the world’s largest sports brand because consistent growth in China stabilised Nike Inc when it struggled to fend off competition in the US Revenue in China surged 21% in the past year to US$5.13 billion, growing to 14% of Nike total sales. Meanwhile, revenue in North America declined about 2%. And China is a major supplier, too, producing about one-fifth of all its goods.

The coffee chain counts the US and China as its two key markets. Last year, China was “a standout,” posting 7% same-store sales growth, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson said. Starbucks Corp expects strength to continue with an accelerated expansion plan that will add 600 stores a year to hit 6,000 by 2022. But there are already signs of weakness in the country, with sales at existing stores declining 2% last quarter.

Starbucks is also more exposed than other US restaurant chains because it owns most of its stores in the country, rather than selling franchise rights. But that may also shield it from a backlash because it’s seen as a good employer and founder Howard Schultz travels to the region often for public events.

The world’s largest restaurant chain has been in China for almost three decades and now has about 2,600 locations there. The company did reduce its exposure to the country last year, selling its China division for US$1.7 billion to an investor group that includes state-backed entities.

But McDonald’s Corp did maintain a 20% stake, which means it’s still a valuable source of revenue growth. The new owners plan to almost double the number of locations in the next five years. But that will come amid a recent slowdown in the business, with customer visits declining over the past several months.

While China is one of the beverage company’s biggest markets, Coca-Cola Co did recently reduce exposure there by divesting its bottling operations. It doesn’t break out sales from the country but has consistently called China one of its best growth markets. For many years, the company’s Sprite brand was tops in China.

The toymaker is looking to China to help revive growth, including entering a partnership with e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd last year. It also recently reached a deal to open learning centres in the country with a local partner that will integrate its brands, including Fisher-Price, into the curriculum. Mattel Inc, which also makes the Barbie and American Girl properties, last year said its China business could quadruple by 2020.

Michael Kors
While many US brands have been reducing risk in China, Michael Kors Holdings Ltd in 2016 acquired direct control of its business there from a licensee. The division included more than 100 stores and about US$200 million in revenue. The move was seen as a way to offset slowing sales in other regions. The luxury purveyor also makes a lot of its goods in China, with one manufacturing partner accounting for 20% of its products.

Burger King
The chain’s owner, Restaurant Brands International Inc, has big plans for China. CEO Daniel Schwartz recently said the country will be the focus of its global expansion plans. The company is also taking its Tim Hortons brand to China with plans to open more than 1,500 locations there. “We’re excited about China,” Schwartz said on a recent call with analysts.

Steve Madden
The shoe and handbag brand sources more than 90% of its goods from China, meaning any kind of serious disruption to its supply chain would have a huge impact. And while China is a small market at this point for Steven Madden Ltd – it generates 90% of its revenue in the US – the region is a source of growth.

“Long term, we remain very optimistic about the opportunity there,” Steve Madden CEO Edward Rosenfeld said last month on a call with analysts. “We’re going to ramp up marketing.”