Hinchliffe set for Sears shoe deal

Sears, the sprawling retail conglomerate that includes Selfridges and the Freemans catalogue, is close to selling its Freeman Hardy & Willis shoe shops to Stephen Hinchliffe, the Sheffield entrepreneur.

Hinchliffe, whose fast-growing retail group includes Sock Shop, the luggage store Salisbury and the Contessa lingerie chain, has been in talks with Sears for several weeks.

Sears would not comment yesterday, but a deal is thought to be "imminent".

The deal would involve Mr Hinchliffe's Facia group acquiring more than 200 of the 325 FHW shops. The remainder will be converted to Sears' newer shoe formats such as Shoe Express and Hush Puppies. A price tag has not been revealed but Sears is unlikely to raise a significant sum from the disposal of the stores.

Sears' chief executive, Liam Strong, has come under intense pressure to rationalise the sprawling retail empire, which many analysts see as unwieldy. The British Shoe Corporation subsidiary includes 4,000 outlets and in some towns Sears has up to eight different shoe shops on the same high street.

Sears has been keen to offload weaker formats such as FHW and Curtess to concentrate on Shoe Express, Dolcis and Shoe City, its out-of-town chain. There have been rumours that the Saxone shoe chain will also be sold off but Sears denies this.

Industry sources have also said that either the Selfridges department store or the Freemans catalogue business may be sold, but the company says both will remain within the group.

Sears reported strong profits growth in April but in June said its first half performance would be dented by stock problems.

Mr Hinchliffe says all Facia's deals are financed "from our own resources" and that his plan is to build a large retail group that he may ultimately float on the stock market.

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