Mixed retail fortunes leave City disappointed

Christmas sales: Kingfisher leads the pack in unimpressive Yuletide updates, while JJB Sports keeps up a winning run
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The Independent Online

Kingfisher, the Woolworths and Comet group that has been struggling to re-group after a profits warning and a management clear-out last year, disappointed the City yesterday with a mixed update on Christmas trading.

Comet performed well, boosted by strong sales of multi-media PCs, and Woolworths also recovered from last year's stock problems. However, B&Q has faltered in a tough DIY market and Darty, the French electricals group, was badly affected by the Paris strikes in the run-up to Christmas.

Other retailers also reported mixed fortunes yesterday. Anita Roddick's Body Shop proved a disappointment when it said sales were similar to last year, with hardly any growth in Christmas trading. It has continued to struggle in the US and warned that profits this year would be "a little below" last year's levels.

But the best performance on the high street so far this year has come from JJB Sports, the chain of sports shops run by the former Blackburn Rover footballer David Whelan. The company went to the top of the retail league table with a surge in sales and plans to add more stores. "There is a big move towards keeping fit in this country and we're benefiting from that," Mr Whelan said.

Kingfisher, led by its chief executive, Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy, was reporting on sales for the 10 weeks to 6 January, which showed that group like-for- like sales were up by 3.9 per cent on the same period last year. The group's shares rose 9p to 538p on the news that Woolworths's sales had increased by 7.3 per cent, helped by better stock availability, which proved a problem last Christmas. Sales of toys and home essentials were particularly strong.

Comet, the electricals chain which sank into loss last year, improved sales by 22 per cent, although this was from a low base. The chain is now re-building lost market share and despite making a trading loss of pounds 8.7m in the first half is now expected to make a modest profit over the full year.

Superdrug improved sales by 2.5 per cent with the move into health and beauty products continuing. However, sales at B&Q fell by 3 per cent, with kitchen sales poor. Sales at Darty, the French group, were 3.8 per cent down on a like-for-like basis, although the company said this was due to the French strikes, which disrupted pre-Christmas sales.

Shares in Body Shop fell 1p to 151p when it said like-for-like sales for the 10 weeks to December were unchanged.

The chairman, Gordon Roddick, said: "Retail sales in the USA have not yet shown the consistent improvement we are seeking, having been affected by the difficult retail climate there during the Christmas period." The company released no fresh information on the Roddicks' plan to take it private.

JJB Sports continued its spectacular run, with sales in the 47 weeks to Christmas Eve 17.8 per cent higher than the same period last year.

The company now has 148 stores, including five out-of-town superstores. Seven new high street stores and 15 out-of-town shops will open this year.

Having avoided opening stores in London so far due to concerns over high staff turnover and theft, JJB is now hoping to open several central London stores in the next six months.

JJB shares, priced at 215p when it came to the stock market 14 months ago, closed 20p higher yesterday at 618p.

The company is now valued at more than pounds 180m. Mr Whelan, who founded the company with pounds 400 in Wigan in 1971, still owns 60 per cent of the stock, together with his family. That stake is now worth pounds 120m.

Allders said sales in its department stores were up 8.5 per cent in the 15 weeks to mid-January. Like-for-like sales, however, were up by just 1 per cent.