The Week Ahead: Tesco steamroller slows but it will still flatten the opposition

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The Independent Online

The Tesco steamroller powers on, with the supermarket giant posting its third-quarter sales figures on Friday. While momentum is likely to slow due to increasing competition and waning disposable income, analysts believe the group will still produce the strongest sales figures of UK food retailers. Barclays Capital is predicting UK like-for-like sales growth of more than 6 per cent - excluding petrol sales - compared to 7.5 per cent growth last year. The analysts are even more bullish about offshore growth, predicting sales up by 20 per cent.

However, supermarkets will once again be the focus of Government attention when a new campaign to crack down on under-18s buying alcohol is launched. A number of chains, including Tesco and J Sainsbury, were called in to speak with the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, after undercover police operations in the summer discovered they regularly sold to minors.

Government regulation is also threatening to curb Tesco's estimated 30.2 per cent of the £120bn UK grocery market. The Office of Fair Trading is reconsidering another probe into market competition. But, in a warning to small retailers, OFT chief executive John Fingleton says his role is to "protect competition, not competitors".

While Tesco benefits from higher fuel prices through the sale of petrol, discount airline easyJet will report a fairly flat 2005 profit this week as rising fuel costs eat into healthy revenue growth. Gerald Khoo, an analyst with Oriel Securities, is forecasting a pre-tax profit of £63.3m. He is looking for management's commentary on two main issues - fuel hedging and average revenue per seat. "Easyjet has been building hedging cover from zero this year. I want to know what percentage cover they have, at what price, and the duration of the cover," he said.

But, definitive statements on strategy will have to wait until the new chief executive, Andrew Harrison, takes up the reins on 1 December. His first test may well be facing down FL Group, as the Icelandair owner has taken a 16 per cent stake in easyJet. But, any takeover would need to be supported by easyJet's founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who retains a 40 per cent stake.

In contrast, the deadline for offers for Cadbury Schweppes's European drinks arm is on Wednesday. Names associated with the £1.2bn business include private equity firm Permira and US rival Blackstone, which has teamed up with London-based Lion Capital. French private equity group PAL is also thought to be interested.

Before that dawns tomorrow's deadline for the Spirit auction. Bids of around £3bn are expected from rival pub chain Punch and property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz, who is understood to have the backing of Scottish & Newcastle. Former WestLB banker Robin Saunders is also bidding and has lined up a number of investors, including the brewing giant InBev.

Good things are expected from Enterprise Inns' full-year profit announcement, with the UK's biggest pub landlord expected to post a pre-tax profit of around £300m. This represents a healthy 28 per cent rise on 2004. In addition to this acquisition-boosted profit growth, the group is expected to reveal details of its plans to return excess cash to shareholders - by hiking dividends and kicking off a £200m-per-year buyback programme.

Healthcare group SSL International could post an even stronger rise in profits through an impressive burst of organic growth. The firm, whose products range from Durex condoms to Scholl footwear, is expected to produce pre-tax profits of £22m - well up on last year's £17m. SSL is well on the way to achieving management's stated aim of doubling 2004's £26m (pre-IFRS) profit by 2007.

Takeover speculation has swirled around SSL for some time, with global players Reckitt Benckiser, Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly-Clarke all named at some stage as potential acquirers. Many analysts believe such deals make sense, as SSL simply lacks the scale to compete in an international business.

While the parlous state of non-food retailing is well-publicised, Halfords is bucking the trend. The retail car parts and cycle group is expected to report an interim pre-tax profit of around £40m - a 9 per cent increase on last year. "Halfords is much larger than the next biggest specialist rival and the generalists, such as supermarkets, can't really compete with its service offering. It's a huge point of differentiation and provides a degree of insulation from the creep of supermarkets into non-food", said Simon Proctor, an analyst at Charles Stanley Securities.

CALENDAR

Tomorrow 21

UK RESULTS: (final) 2 Ergo Group, Care UK, Carr's Milling Industries, Fountains, Get Group, Nord Anglia Education, RM; (interim) Mice Group, Printing.com, Sutton Harbour Holdings, Thus, Workspace Group

Tuesday 22

UK RESULTS: (F) Abacus, Deltron Electronics, easyJet, Enodis, Enterprise Inns, Innovation Group, Intelek; (I) CML Microsystems, Cranswick, Cropper, Great Portland Estates, Hamworthy KSE, ICAP, ScS Upholstery, SSL International, Supporta, Tribal Group, TRL Electronics, Viridian; (3Q) InterContinental Hotels, Signet

Wednesday 23

UK RESULTS: (F) Paragon Group of Cos; (I) Johnson Matthey, Land of Leather, Paypoint, Radstone Technology, Speedy Hire, Synergy Healthcare; (3Q) Tomkins

Thursday 24

UK RESULTS: (F) Euromoney Institutional Investor; (I) British Land, Castings, Expro International, GCAP Media, Halfords, Imagination Technologies, James Latham, New Avesco, Renova Energy

Friday 25

UK RESULTS: (I) Fuller Smith & Turner

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