Our friends in the North take on the City

Thanks to 'recessionista chic', discount retailers are showing that you don't have to be southern to be part of a market boom
  • @LauraHChesters

There's a glaringly pronounced North-South divide, the argument has long gone, and particularly since the recession economic experts have been stressing the disparity between the booming South and the struggling North. But a number of the successful businesses cashing in on strong equity markets with listings this year are proving this theory wrong.

Many of the companies participating in the recent rush to float in London are bargain-basement retailers that count Bolton, Birmingham, Manchester, Wakefield and Liverpool as their home towns. Next week, the City is due to receive details of a £2bn float of Liverpool's B&M Bargains – the discount variety retailer that has more than 370 stores and employs about 17,000 staff. B&M made pre-tax profits of £88.3m in 2012 and the £2bn valuation is on a multiple of nearly 23 times earnings, according to Reuters.

With stock market listings at their highest level since the first quarter of 2007, B&M is the latest in a roll call that has included (see box) the £1.2bn Cheshire-based Pets at Home; the West Midlands' Poundland, valued at £750m; Bolton's £1.2bn AO.com; and Manchester's young fashion website Boohoo.com, valued at about £500m.

Earlier this week, Wakefield's Card Factory was valued at £766m when its shares were priced at 225p.

Soon to come is Leicester's Shoezone.com. These retailers all have a niche: they target customers looking for a bargain. The luxury end of the retail sector has been booming but so too has the cheap end. As Poundland's chief executive, Jim McCarthy, said last week: "Customers are voting with their wallets and purses. Shoppers look for value – quality and price. The premium end and the discounters are doing well; it is the middle ground that is struggling."

Some of the biggest cheap retailers through history have been created in the North. Iceland, Kwiksave, Asda and Morrisons all started north of the Watford Gap.

The retail expert and Liverpool-based analyst Clive Black, head of research at the broker Shore Capital, said: "Discounting has always been a northern thing. It really started in the North. Aldi, Lidl and Netto all opened their first shops in the North-west as they could see a market for it. It is also very entrepreneurial."

Nick Bubb, a retail analyst and adviser to the Manchester-based broker Zeus Capital, which has been behind many of the floats from the region, said: "It is certainly true that the Greater Manchester area has become a hub for IT talent and distribution chains, on top of its textiles heritage, so it's no surprise that many of the new online growth stocks, like Boohoo, are based up there."

Vicki Day, a fashion blogger and retail expert based in Lancashire, also puts the growth down to the North's savvy shopping habits. She said: "While the South may be deemed as prosperous, the North has got bags of style and swagger but all done on a smaller budget. If you go out on any night in Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle, you see men and women dressed to the nines; their whole outfit is new and not breaking the bank – real recessionista chic."

The companies that have started in the North, Ms Day added, have made sure they are loud and proud of their origins and as a result they have retained loyal followers. "The big plus for all these northern companies is that they play on their roots and people do love to support a home-grown business. It takes real style to look good on a budget, as any northern girl will tell you, and not everything revolves round the South."

The northern success stories are not reserved for listed stocks.

Liverpool's Home Bargains – with sales of more than £1bn – is owned through founder Tom Morris's TJ Morris group. He started out on a market stall and set up the business in the 1970s with his brother. Meanwhile, Asos and Boohoo have a smaller competitor called Missguided.co.uk, a womenswear retailer that was founded in Manchester in March 2009. It turns over £55m a year.

Neither appears to be planning a stock market listing any time soon.

While flotation fever has been running very hot this year, prices have come in at the bottom end of expectations in the last few listings and there are concerns that investor interest is waning. Last week, Patisserie Valerie and greetings card group, Card Factory, both listed at the bottom end of their price range.

The Cheshire-based online retailer The Hut Group, which is backed by the former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy, talked about listing last year and there were expectations that it could do so by the middle of this year.

There are, however, still no details of when it actually will happen. The Hut Group may even have missed the bandwagon of companies that have headed south to the City.

Northern born: Recent IPOs

Pets at Home

The Cheshire-based company was listed in March by private equity owner KKR. It was valued at £1.2bn. Founded in 1991, it has more than more than 370 stores.


The West Midlands retailer, valued at £750m, was also listed in March by a private equity group, Warburg Pincus. It was founded in 1990 and now sells more than 3,000 products at £1 each. It has 450 shops in the UK.


The £1.2bn online electrical retailer was founded as Appliances Online in 2001 and listed in February.


The fashion website from Manchester was listed in March and valued at around £500m.

Card Factory

The Wakefield retailer, which is majority owned by buyout group Charterhouse, listed at 225p a share last week.