Laura Ashley loses out in US fashion stakes

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Pre-Christmas sales at Laura Ashley, the fashion and home furnishings retailer, were hit by a poor US reception to the company's winter clothes ranges.

The company, one of several retailers to report mixed trading fortunes, said sales for the 24 weeks from 30 July were 1.7 per cent up on 1994 on a like-for-like basis, and broadly flat in total.

In the eight weeks immediately before Christmas like-for-like sales were 4.8 per cent up on the same period last year, and 2.5 per cent ahead in total.

Laura Ashley saw a big improvement in UK sales, up 12.2 per cent in the eight-week period on a like-for-like basis. But in North America sales fell 7.7 per cent.

The company said that the US decline was "due to market conditions, combined with the poor acceptance of the company's garment offer for this market". In Continental Europe, like-for-like sales over the same eight-week period rose 7.1 per cent.

Meanwhile, Thorntons, the chocolate group, said sales in the four weeks to 24 December grew on a like-for-like basis by 8.6 per cent. Recently refitted stores achieved a sales increase of 15.6 per cent over the same period. Thornton's Continental Assortments and Premier brands were strong sellers.

Despite the rise, John Thornton, chairman, added a note of caution. "This performance, although good, has not recovered the sales lost during the very hot summer and autumn. The loss of franchise units during the last year continues to have a significant impact on our business at the present time. Alternative outlets are sought," he said.

Also yesterday, WEW, the discount retailer, said that turnover in the four weeks of Christmas and new year trading was 6 per cent down on the same period last year.

James Millar, recently appointed chairman, said: "While there is some encouragement in the improvement in like-for-like sales since last November, there is clearly an enormous task ahead in seeking to turn WEW around, and it is much too early for me to make any observation on progress in that direction."

The company also announced two new appointments to the board of its trading company, What Everyone Wants. From early February, Terence Boland, unrelated to chief executive Richard Boland, joins from Etam as buying and merchandising director for fashion. Kevin Gunter, formerly of Asda and Sears, becomes retail operation director.