BMI View: With the fourth largest economy in Latin America, measured by GDP, Colombia ' s retail sector presents many opportunities for international and domestic retailers, as well as investors. Years of economically sound policy have lowered barriers to entry for international firms, and sustained economic growth has brought lower unemployment rates and higher levels of affluence for a significant portion of the population. However, lingering poverty levels, a deficient physical and transportation infrastructure, and the slow rate of non-cash payment integration into the economy continue to remain a hindrance to achieving full economic growth potential. Nevertheless, significant opportunities remain. In particular, the continuing fall of the informal sector ' s market share and the continuing rise of e-commerce and online retail should provide meaningful incentive for further investment and expansion.
The Colombian economy is set for a sharp slowdown in the coming quarters, as the country struggles in the face of weaker trade dynamics and slowing household spending. Indeed, after real GDP growth of 4.6% in 2014, we forecast only a 3.1% expansion in 2015. This is well below both the government's projections (3.6%) and Bloomberg consensus (3.3%), and reflects our below-consensus oil price and production forecasts for Colombia. Moreover, we expect real GDP growth will remain weak over the coming five years, averaging 3.4% compared to 4.8% in the past half decade, as the impact of weaker oil prices and falling crude production continue to temper the country's economic outlook. This will weigh on the retail sector's prospects, particularly in the luxury non-essentials segments, as disposable income levels remain subdued.
Colombia's rugged topography makes road network development a difficult endeavour. It is estimated that the road network is used for 80% of internal transportation, and is therefore the main means of distribution for retailers, yet the quality and coverage of the road infrastructure is not good. Road maintenance presents significant challenges due to frequent landslides and geographically unstable terrains. In addition, much of the country has no real road networks at all, and although this only prevents retailers from accessing a small portion of the population with ease, when the retail markets in the main cities become saturated and there is no further room for growth, it is the southern underdeveloped regions which will need to be accessed.
Labour market dynamics remain relatively robust for now, with the April national unemployment reading coming in at 9.5%. However, the steady decline in unemployment that we have seen over the last decade has largely levelled off; we expect the jobless rate to tick up in the months ahead as the country's rising economic headwinds undermine business confidence and dampen job creation. This is bad news for retailers across most subsectors, as it will further constrain growth prospects in an already-subdued market.
While a few international players, such as Almacenes Exito S.A. (or Grupo Exito) and Chilean retailer Cencosud, dominate Colombia's largest retail sub-sector, mass grocery retail (MGR), Colombia's retail sector overall contains some 12,000 small, independent retailers, many operating a "mom-and-pop" type format focused only on their local area. Colombia also has a substantial informal sector, which accounts for over half of total household retail spending. Over recent years, larger firms and formats have made substantial gains in market share; however, these small businesses still maintain a meaningful presence, especially in less urban areas, where low-income consumers often lack transportation options and have insufficient income to take advantage of bulk-purchase discounts. As transportation infrastructure continues to improve, new markets should emerge in these areas, and the informal sector in these locations should present a significant opportunity for urban-established retailers looking for further growth.
In urban areas, however, the retail sector displays a variety of formats, from hypermarkets to convenience stores and from high-end supermarkets to discount warehouses. As Colombia is one of the most urbanised nations in Latin America, at over 75% of the population. These urban markets see the highest levels of competition and customisation, as they represent the largest opportunities. Along with the continuing expansion of their hypermarket and supermarket formats, many larger firms, to compete effectively with small, independent retailers, have started to focus on proximity as well. This has resulted in existing retailers opening smaller, more convenience-oriented formats, such as Grupo Exito's Exito Express stores. It has also prompted successful international convenience store chains to enter the market, such as Mexican retailer OXXO. Urban areas have also seen the continuation of shopping mall development, as they represent the choice format for many international fashion and department store brands and as Colombia currently has one of the lowest shopping centre penetration rates in Latin America.
Online retailing in Colombia still remains underdeveloped, even as the country has one of the highest internet connectivity rates in the region. However, both 2013 and 2014 saw over 30% y-o-y growth, as some of the largest retailers have been developing an online presence to meet growing demand from younger, computer-oriented consumers. Although Colombia still lags a dependable logistics infrastructure, it looks set to make inroads in coming years, as the government has pledged USD15bn for basic infrastructure (roads and railways) improvement and firms like Servicomex plan to expand their portfolio of logistics parks.
Key BMI Forecasts
We forecast that total household spending within the retail sector will increase from USD178bn in 2015 to USD242bn in 2019.
Housing & utilities will remain the largest sector of household spending throughout our period, with spending in 2015 forecast to reach USD42.8bn.
The proportion of households reaching the middle-class income bracket of USD10,000 and above is expected to rise from 14% in 2015 to 17.8% in 2019.