Investment: Blacks shrugs off the gloom

OPINIONS differ greatly over the future for Britain's sports retailers. The bear case, and the reason shares in Blacks Leisure have halved in the past six months, is that the UK will soon be overrun by shops selling trainers, replica football kits and surf-wear.

Faced with falling volumes, price competition will intensify and the strategy of using long-term property leases with rents that don't fall - a bonus when trading is buoyant - will mean a bloodbath.

As you'd expect, Blacks' chairman and chief executive Simon Bentley shrugs off this scenario. He claims that, far from being ex-growth, there is scope for the big five sportswear chains, including Blacks, to increase their market share from the current 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

True, Blacks' results in the six months to August support his case. Profits up 12 per cent to pounds 6m in a difficult market was a creditable performance. Like-for-like sales up 8 per cent in September is another eye-catching statistic.

Nevertheless, caution looks prudent. First-half sales grew at nearly three times the rate of profits, suggesting it is getting harder to shift stock. Gross margins of 47.8 per cent, down nearly a percentage point in the first half, look vulnerable if things get really tough.

Consensus profit forecasts for the full year to January give a lowly forward multiple of 6 at 197p, but the spread of brokers' forecasts for 1999-2000 is a yawning pounds 13m-pounds 18m and underlines the market's uncertainty. The shares didn't budge yesterday and only the very brave will take the plunge at this point. Sell.

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