Argos faces raised bid

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The Independent Online
CATALOGUE-shopping group GUS is expected to increase its pounds 1.6bn offer for Argos this week, after the discount retailer revealed its final defence against the hostile bid on Friday. GUS has a week to decide whether to sweeten its 570p-a-share offer.

Meanwhile, chairman Lord Wolfson can celebrate the victory GUS enjoyed on the other side of the Atlantic last week, when the company cleared all but one technical hurdle in its $845m (pounds 500m) quest for Metromail, the databases group in Lombard, Illinois.

Metromail is generally understood in the UK to be a company in the business of selling information about companies and consumers. GUS's acquisition can be seen as a logical add-on to its American information company Experian.

But the excerpts below from the Wall Street Journal and DM News, an American trade publication covering the direct-mail industry, offer a more detailed glimpse of the business GUS has acquired in buying Metromail:

WSJ, 31 March: "Baby on the way? Metromail knows, and will sell the information to diaper makers and other merchants for 25 cents a name. Moved to a new house? Metromail will furnish your name to junk mailers and telephone pitchmen for prices beginning at 25 cents a name ...

"The battle over Metromail reflects the escalating value of personal data in a wired age. Needham & Co, a Boston investment firm, counts nearly two dozen acquisitions in the sector in the past three years alone. Metromail, whose revenue has doubled to $328m since 1993, is one of the biggest prizes ...

"Great Universal bought Experian Inc, the old information systems and credit-reporting unit of TRW Corp, for $1.7bn in 1996 and merged it with its existing information-services unit. The combined Experian database now has information on 780 million consumers in 17 countries.

"In the UK, Experian sorts people who live within a given postal code into social types, such as Clever Capitalists and Sweatshop Sharers. In the US, it sorts by categories like Country Clubbers, Posh Nesters, Solvent Seniors and Middleville. Selling perfume aimed at teenage girls in the [US] Midwest? An Experian computer can spit out the households in Illinois where potential customers live, sorted by the psychological types that might be inclined to give it a try."

DM News, 23 March: "Experian, which has partnered with Metromail since 1996 on the Insource consumer enhancement database, was among a group of at least five companies that had expressed an interest in Metromail since late last year. Formal acquisition discussions began in late January and by 25 February 25 representatives laid out contingencies that if fulfilled would lead to a purchase offer.

The merger would give Experian, a worldwide supplier of credit data as well as automotive and property information services, significantly increased direct mail production and data warehousing capability."

DM News, 30 March: "It is data that is taking a front-page position in today's financial pages. As one analyst asked in trying to put into perspective the deal in which Great Universal Stores is trying to acquire Metromail: 'Who else has data that people can buy?' "