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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 14:52 GMT
Sign of the times for Carrefour
A Carrefour supermarket in Toulouse, south western France
Carrefour still makes most of its money in France

After 42 years in existence some of the harsh realities of the cutthroat modern retail world are making themselves felt at the French inventor of the hypermarket, Carrefour.

The company appears poised for a shake-up at the top, as it seeks to "address the organization and structure of the group".

However the retail giant has so far refused to elaborate on the future of chairman and CEO Daniel Bernard, who has headed the firm for over a decade, and of European chief Joel Saveuse.

The pair have been under pressure to step down amid poor hypermarket sales, and a mood for management change sweeping France.

We are seeing that there is a lack of growth and a decline in the market share in the main businesses, which are the hypermarkets in France
Guy Francheteu of Fideuram Wargny

Carrefour, the world's No. 2 retailer, was founded in 1963 - the same year the a Beatles released their first LP.

The first of these giant stores appeared in the quiet Paris suburb of Sainte-Genevieve des Bois.

Bigger than any other supermarket of its time, the idea proved so popular that hyper-mania soon spread across France and throughout the world.

The firm is now Europe's largest retailer and a major player in South America and Asia.

However times have got a bit harder in the industry in the last four decades, with retailers under pressure to cut prices and make discounts to combat their rivals.

Meanwhile unemployment and a weak economy have left consumers wary of spending, despite retailers and their suppliers agreeing in June to lower prices of big brand-name goods by 2%.

Global reach

While the global Carrefour business has been growing, its share price over the past few years has been falling. Although ironically Carrefour shares have rallied on the new uncertainty about the management.

The Paris-based company reported global full-year sales for 2004 of 81.4bn euros ($106bn; 56.2bn).

Sales at Carrefour's French hypermarkets have also been falling slightly over the past 18 months.

You might not think that would matter very much for a company with more than 10,000 shops in 29 countries.

But France still accounts for about two thirds of Carrefour's profits, so worries about the situation in France have seen its shares go down 20% last year.

They are now half the price they were in 1999.

Domestic worries

Guy Francheteu, an analyst at stockbroker Fideuram Wargny, believes investors are worried about Carrefour's problems at home.

"We are seeing that there is a lack of growth and a decline in the market share in the main businesses, which are the hypermarkets in France," he says.

"Without the contribution of the hypermarkets in France, we don't have enough resources to fuel the growth outside France."

The recent financial challenges have forced Carrefour to rethink its strategy.

It has promised to sell more than $1bn worth of assets by the end of the year and has pledged to deal with its debts, which stand at almost $12bn.

New opportunities

Whenever things look shaky, the media speculate about the firm merging with one of its competitors, such as Britain's Tesco, or even the world's largest retailer, US giant Wal-Mart.

We need to be at home all over the world to be an international retailer
Daniel Bernard, Carrefour chief executive

Meanwhile, Carrefour goes on looking for new opportunities.

Embattled chief executive Daniel Bernard has enthused about the company's prospects in China.

Carrefour first began trading in Asia in 1989, when it entered Taiwan's market. Since then, the company has been investing in China.

Unlike many of its major rivals, Carrefour trades under several store brands across the world. Its company portfolio includes names such as Champion, Dia, 8 a Huit and Shoppi.

In terms of brand identity, Mr Bernard has admitted that this can be a problem.

Company love

"If you compare with Tesco, it is Tesco everywhere," he says. "It is not possible in our case because we have very clear different formats.

"A discount store is not a hypermarket, a hypermarket is not a supermarket.

"When we buy a company in a country with a strong name, even if this name is a little out of fashion, we choose not to change it. The loyalty of customers is not just on account of the name."

Carrefour has a "clear strategy" to build an international company with a strong domestic base in France.

Carrefour chief executive Daniel Bernard
"You have to love the countries where you are."

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