Fashion firms feel pinch

BY NIGEL COPE

The challenging conditions on the high street were confirmed yesterday when a group of Britain's fashion retailers announced patchy trading.

Worst of the bunch was Etam, the womenswear chain that also operates under the Tammy and Snob formats. Etam had already issued a profits warning in January, saying warmer autumn weather had damaged sales of winter clothing.

Yesterday it issued poorer-than-expected results along with a statement that trading conditions remained tough. April, however, had shown more encouraging signs.

Etam also warned that profits in the first half of the year would be down further unless trading picked up. Group profits fell from £14m to £10.7m in the year to January on sales down slightly at £218m. The company is refurbishing stores and invigorating its fashion lines.

French Connection, the fashion group that also trades under the Nicole Farhi format, said like-for-like sales in the UK were up 6 per cent on last year but that the consumer remained a cautious animal.

French Connection, which is moving from the USM to the main market in May, has managed to buck the trend by investing in new stores and refurbishing existing ones. It invested £3m in new stores and refurbishments over the year and has 29 UK outlets.

In the year to January the company increased pre-tax profits 35 per cent to £6.9m on sales up 10 per cent to £70m.

Austin Reed, the upmarket menswear retailer, is also pushing ahead, though it warned that trading had been more challenging since the turn of the year.

The branches at Heathrow and Gatwick airports turned in a strong performance and another Heathrow site is planned. Pre-tax profits improved from £5m to £6.5m, helped by improved margins and the closure of poor-performing stores.

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