Blue skies ahead as clouds part for Harvey

Billionaire Gerry Harvey thought things had become so bad in the retail sector in Australia that he feared he could have gone broke.

Billionaire Gerry Harvey thought things had become so bad in the retail sector in Australia that he feared he could have gone broke.

But the veteran retailer is fighting back, saying he feels more confident about the sector than he has in several years.

"There have been a number of times where I've thought to myself, 'Are we going to go broke? What the hell's happening here?' And, 'It just gets worse'," he told BusinessDay.

"I think we'll look back at the year ended June 2013 and say that's when we were on the bottom. I think we're now on the way up, or I hope that's what it is."

Harvey Norman reported a net profit of $142.2 million for the year to June, down 17.5 per cent from $172.4 million a year earlier.

It said the results were impacted by further write-downs in the value of its properties, and had benefited from an upturn in trading conditions in the second half of the year.

Mr Harvey said while he had become used to watching with trepidation as the sector weakened in recent years, he believed things were picking up, with lower interest rates, less competition and higher house clearance rates luring people back to his stores.

"Deep down you think this is going to turn. But you think, when? One year goes into the next, and you're still going down.

"All the evidence is there now that we've turned the corner. We're actually climbing up the rungs instead of dropping down them."

Harvey Norman's Australian sales were down 4.2 per cent for the year to June, and global sales - taking into account the retailers' outlets in Europe - fell 3 per cent.

The company posted a final dividend of 4.5¢ a share, up 0.5¢ from the previous year, to be paid on December 2.

Despite the weaker than expected result, Mr Harvey said his outlook for this financial year was positive. "There's a lot less competition out there right now. Clive Peeters has disappeared, a lot of Retravision stores have gone. There's been an awful lot of people getting out of this space," he said.

"Business confidence looks like it might be increasing, and hopefully with an election result it will increase again."

Harvey Norman has joined other bricks-and-mortar stores in embarking on an online strategy to try to offset diminishing in-store sales. But Mr Harvey said its online sales were still only about 2 per cent of its business, despite doubling over the past year.

He criticised the "hype" around online sales, saying there was no evidence people were buying more of certain whitegoods and electronics over the internet.

"There are not many people who want to buy a fridge, or a TV or a dryer without going in and having a look at it," he said.

"If you look at the internet retailers, they say that's how everyone thinks and it's going to double. But there's no evidence that's likely at all.

"It's hyped up and given a lot of media coverage. The truth escapes all the time, and it's largely fed by internet retailers."

CBA analyst Andrew McLennan said investors were choosing to look past the weaker-than-expected results to focus on the company's positive outlook, driving the share price up 4.5 per cent to close at $3.01 on Friday.

"It's one of those balancing acts really. The results are disappointing but the outlook is positive," he said.

"The positive commentary on the company's outlook will be picked up by the market, but it is still relatively early to tell."

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