Blue sky ahead as clouds part for Harvey
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, declaring 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 affected by further writedowns in the value of its properties, but 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 that we've turned the corner. We're 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 its outlets in Europe - fell 3 per cent.
The company posted a final dividend of 4.5¢ per 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 the current financial year was positive.
"There's a lot less competition out there right now. Clive Peters 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 online sales were still only about 2 per cent of business, despite doubling over the last year.
He criticised the "hype" around online sales, saying there was no evidence people were buying more of 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 . . . largely by internet retailers."
Commonwealth Bank analyst Andrew McLennan said investors were choosing to look past the weaker than expected results to focus on 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. The positive commentary on the company's outlook will be picked up by the market. But it is still relatively early to tell."