While the sub-prime crisis and the slowing US economy is having an effect on polished demand, January showed a mixed picture for the diamond market.
Polished sales in the Far East picked up strongly, a trend that appears to be returning after a temporary slowdown in buying activity during the Chinese New Year, with traders reporting that new orders have started coming in this week.
In the main US market, January retail sales underscored that consumers last month cut back spending on discretionary items.
According to the National Retail Federation, retail industry sales for January - which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants - rose 2.0% unadjusted over last year and 0.1% seasonally adjusted from December.
Figures released by the US Commerce Department showed total retail sales - which include non-general merchandise categories such as autos, gasoline stations and restaurants - in January increased 0.3% seasonally adjusted from last month and 4.6% unadjusted year-over-year.
“The January numbers are indicative of the issues consumers are facing, including the housing slump, a sluggish employment sector and high energy prices,” said NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells. “We expect to see marginal improvements in the second half of the year once consumers begin to receive their rebate checks.”
Meanwhile, Blue Nile received analyst downgrades after the online US jewelry retailer said it predicted first-quarter profit and sales will be less than analysts estimated as consumers cut spending.
Citi Investment Research downgraded the stock to ‘Hold’ from ‘Buy’ on February 12, saying his December upgrade of the stock was a mistake. "We did not believe the jewelry market would weaken so dramatically and we did not believe Blue Nile would be this cyclical," they said in a research note.
On January 29, American Technology Research analyst Tim Boyd changed his rating and lowered his price target for the stock to $40 form $48. He attributed the downgrade to a several factors, such as a lack of job security and a general decline in spending due to current views that US economic growth is slowing.
Jewelry retailers Zale Corp., Tiffany & Co. and Signet Group PLC also recently gave cautious sales reports for the US.
Amazon was a bright spot, saying this week that diamond sales more than doubled in the fourth quarter of 2007, fuelled by demand for pendants, earrings and engagement rings. The online retailer said sales of diamond-encrusted watches and black jewelry were strong during the period, despite general weaknesses amongst consumer spending.
January also saw two bankruptcy filings by Friedman’s and Fortunoff, which has highlighted the need for a major restructuring in the US jewelry market.
Harry Winston chairman and CEO Bob Gannicott said last week in an interview that American retailers are going to have to do some heavy restructuring as margins have come under increasing pressure, especially due to competition from the internet. The power of selling over the internet, he said is obvious.
The trade will be closely watching retailers performance in the US, which remains the main engine for polished sales.
“For this year, we believe the big chains will have to review their business model, the ‘mom and pop’ stores will probably do better this year,” said a senior polished trader at a leading Indian diamond company.