Walmart (window?) shopping in Russia once more

By bne IntelliNews February 16, 2012

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With consumption back to booming in 2011, the Russian market once more stands out as an attractive target for international retailers. Speculation is rising that a number of big M&A deals, and even greenfield investments, could be on the cards. Topping the bill is that perennial question: Will Walmart ever find its way into the market?

Local media reported on February 14 that the US giant is in talks to buy the Karusel hypermarket chain from Russian market leader X5 for around $2bn. Walmart refuted the claim, but there's enough smoke to suggest fire. Having hired former X5 CEO Lev Khasis last year, the American's have also taken on the Russian company's former commercial director Ekaterina Ishevskaya, Kommersant reported on February 10.

At the same time, Khasis claimed in an interview on February 13 that Walmart aims to enter Russia by 2014. After years of trying, the world's largest retailer appeared to give up its ambitions in December 2010 when it closed its Moscow office, noting a lack of acquisition opportunities.

"After leaving empty-handed ... Walmart is desperate to come back to Russia, one of the fast-growing consumer markets where it is still not present," write Alfa Bank analysts. However, as Khasis noted in his interview, the window of opportunity for securing a significant share of the grocery retail segment via organic growth closed some time ago, and Walmart remains faced with high asking prices for one of the major Russian players.

The US company can easily afford it, suggest Troika Dialog analysts: "Given that Walmart has earmarked around $12-13bn in investment to expand into emerging markets, this would make the acquisition of a local player easily achievable." They however see the most likely targets as O'Key - which has a market cap hovering just above $2bn - and Lenta, which is valued at $2.6bn.

The chase for a slice of the Russian market is back on thanks to resumed growth in consumer spending. Analysts at Renaissance Capital see demand continuing its post-crisis revival in 2012, with imports into Russia likely to rise 27% year on year, car sales 20.4%, and retail loans 36.8%.

Those prospects are tempting other foreign investors to take the plunge also, with greenfield investment still open in other retail segments. Germany's leading electronics retailer Media-Saturn will open five or more hypermarkets in Russia in 2012, COO Guido Oberwald said on February 15, according to Prime.

The resumed growth has even convinced Ikea to put more money into the market, despite freezing its expansion in recent years due to corruption scandals. Following breakneck expansion of its retail outlets in Russia to 2008, the Swedish furniture giant is now building production facilities. In 2011 it announced it would launch a $33m chair-making plant in the Kirov region. Following that, Nizhny Novgorod regional deputy governor Dmitry Svatkovsky said on February 15 that the company is considering a $50m plant in his region, according to RIA Novosti.

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