* Sales strategy to expand online, focus on bigger stores
* 2015 net profit up 15 pct, in line with forecast
* Sales rise 15 pct in first five weeks of new year (Adds CEO comments)
By Sonya Dowsett
MADRID, March 9 (Reuters) - Inditex, the world’s biggest clothing retailer, reported strong sales growth for the first five weeks of its new financial year and said the pace of store openings would slow as part of a broader trend of sales moving online.
Inditex will focus store openings on flagship sites in prime locations like the three-floor Zara store opened in a 19th century building in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo district last week. It will aim for 6 to 8 percent growth in new sales space in coming years, below previous guidance of 8 to 10 percent.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Pablo Isla said Inditex, whose stable of brands also houses upmarket label Massimo Dutti and teen chain Bershka, did not separate online sales from store figures because they were complementary.
Customers often brought items bought online into high street shops to change them, he said.
“In many cases this is an online return but a store sale because the customer goes to the store to change the size,” he told analysts and reporters on a conference call. “The business is integrated from every point of view.”
He said the average spend per customer online was higher than that in stores.
Analysts welcomed the slowing pace of store openings and were satisfied that Inditex would be able to grow market share with its amended business model. Shares rose 2.5 percent.
“We believe that Inditex has made the right choice to slow space growth,” said Bernstein analyst Jamie Merriman. “We believe that Inditex is clearly able to grow market share with the less capital intensive e-commerce approach.”
The Spanish retailer opened 330 stores in 56 markets in 2015, with a new Zara shop in Hawaii becoming the group’s 7,000th store worldwide. It expanded online sales to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Australia during the year.
Sales of items such as broderie anglaise blouses, floral lace dresses and metallic espadrilles from fashion label Zara’s spring collection helped push sales across Inditex’s stable of brands up 15 percent, at constant exchange rates, in the first five weeks of the financial year that started in February.
Rival H&M saw sales rise just 7 percent in January in local currencies and warned that price reductions to shift winter wear after unusually warm weather and high purchasing costs due to a strong dollar would weigh on its first quarter.
Inditex beat Societe Generale’s forecast of 12 percent sales growth. Analyst Anne Critchlow said it implied sales growth, stripping out the effect of new store openings, of 8 to 9 percent. Lower prices may have fed into this performance, she said.
“We believe Inditex has been lowering prices and this is booting like-for-like sales growth at Inditex,” she said.
Inditex’s net profit came in at 2.88 billion euros ($3.16 billion) for the financial year, boosted by the relative weakness of the euro against a basket of around 60 currencies, in line with the expectations of analysts polled by Reuters.
Inditex is one of the richest valued stocks in the apparel sector, trading at 28.3 times forward 12-month earnings, compared with 21.7 times for H&M, according to Reuters data.
Shares, that had fallen around 7 percent since the beginning of the year partly due to worries about a strengthening euro squeezing core profit, were the biggest gainers in the DJ Stoxx index of European retailers in Wednesday trade.
The cash-rich company proposed a dividend of 0.6 euros per share, up 15.4 percent on the year-ago period. ($1 = 0.9115 euros) (Editing by Keith Weir)