Bulmer pierces the festive gloom: Cider maker lifts payout but points to late dash for drink

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THE important Christmas trading period has come late for drinks companies, according to John Rudgard, chief executive of HP Bulmer, the UK's biggest cider producer.

'There was no evidence of Christmas buying until the beginning of December. We normally see trade coming through in November,' he said.

Cider drinkers will benefit from the tough competition among producers. Promotional Christmas prices are the same as last year at about pounds 2.29 for two litres of medium-strength cider.

Despite the sluggish start to the festive season, Mr Rudgard said the underlying picture for sales was good. The UK cider market rose 9.5 per cent to 89 million gallons in the year to September.

Bulmer's operating profits for the six months to 29 October, announced yesterday, rose 8.34 per cent to pounds 14m. The interim dividend rises from 3.75p to 4p.

Pre-tax profits, however, slumped from pounds 10.7m to pounds 2.7m after a pounds 9.3m provision on the recent sale of the loss-making pectin operation. Analysts have upgraded forecasts for 1994/95 by about pounds 1m to pounds 24m.

Bulmer, which produces Strongbow and Woodpecker, makes cider for all market categories, including the burgeoning economy sector that accounts for 25 per cent of the take-home market, up from 15 per cent in a year. Bulmer has nearly a third of the economy cider sector.

Besides the benefits from the expanding demand for cider, Bulmer has managed to keep production costs low by harvesting 80 per cent of its apple requirement from the UK.

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