Metro's Real hypermarket sale triggers talk of Amazon interest

German retailer Metro AG plans to sell its struggling Real hypermarket chain, which some analysts say could fetch around 1 billion euros (915 million pounds) and attract interest from potential buyers including online giant Amazon.

Reuters

Foreign players have shunned the cut-throat German grocery market, which is dominated by discounters Aldi and Lidl, since Walmart took a loss of $1 billion when it sold its stores to Metro and pulled out of the country in 2006.

But since Amazon's $13.7 billion acquisition of U.S. chain Whole Foods last year there has been speculation that it could be interested in food retailers in Germany, its second biggest market after the United States.

"Germany's grocery e-commerce is very underdeveloped and Germany is a very important country for Amazon," said Bernstein analyst Bruno Monteyne, adding that a likely price tag of around 1 billion euros would be no hurdle for the ecommerce giant.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.

Metro said it wants to focus on its wholesale business which serves independent traders, hotels and restaurants and is more shielded from ecommerce, while doing more delivery to customers.

Koch said selling Real was not connected to Daniel Kretinsky buying a stake in Metro last month, although he said they had met the Czech billionaire, whose move prompted speculation he could make a full bid and take Metro private.

The wholesale food business has higher margins than grocery retail and is growing faster as people spend more on eating out rather than cooking at home, a factor which helped drive the move by Britain's Tesco to buy Booker last year.

Analysts said that a financial investor might be interested in the real estate value of the 65 hypermarkets that Real owns, while other options could be a sale of parcels of stores to other chains like Lidl or dominant supermarket group Edeka.

However, that could pose anti-trust concerns like those that dogged Edeka's purchase of loss-making chain Kaiser’s in 2015.

Metro shares, which tumbled in April when it cut its outlook due to poor performance at its Russian operations, were up 2.2 percent at 13.97 euros at 0823 GMT.

FALLING SALES

Metro has previously tried to offload Real, which has 282 stores in Germany and 34,000 staff. Real posted a loss and saw sales slide 7.2 percent in the latest quarter, which it blamed on an early Easter and unusually hot weather.

Chief Executive Olaf Koch said earlier talks with interested parties had not come at the right time as Metro restructured the business, including a deal on lower pay for new hires.

Koch pointed to "express interest from a number of parties", but said the sale process could take up to eight months.

Metro has already sold its Kaufhof department stores and split from consumer electronics retailer Ceconomy.

Real, which sold its stores in eastern Europe to French retailer Auchan in 2012, has suffered from tough competition from the advance of online players like Amazon.

It has sought to build up an online grocery in recent years, with e-commerce still only accounting for 2 percent of sales but growing fast. Its total sales fell by 3.1 percent to 7.2 billion euros in the 2016/17 financial year.

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