Boots stores report wider North-South trade divide

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The Independent Online

Alliance Boots, the retail and wholesale pharmaceuticals giant, revealed a sharp divide between trading at its stores in the South of England, including London, and the rest of the country.

The owner of the Boots chain said revenues had risen by 31.3 per cent to £11.74bn, powered by its pharmaceutical wholesale division's two acquisitions in Turkey and Germany last year.

But in the UK, Boots's like-for-like retail sales rose by only 0.7 per cent, including VAT, in the half -year to 30 September.

The finance director, George Fairweather, said: "In London and the South, we are seeing the economy being stronger and footfall on the high street relatively stronger in the South than in perhaps areas, such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the North of England."

He explained that because shoppers in these areas were being hit by a larger proportion of public-sector job cuts, they were struggling more with high inflation, rising petrol prices and soaring energy costs. Nevertheless, Boots UK's dispensing volumes rose by a healthier 1.8 per cent on a like-for-like basis. The group's health and beauty division – which has shops in countries including Thailand and the Netherlands – grew revenues by 0.4 per cent to £3.65bn over the half-year.

Andy Hornby, the former head of the rescued bank HBOS, left his job as chief executive of Alliance Boots in March. The company said two months later that he was too "stressed" to continue.

But Mr Fairweather said Alliance Boots – which was taken private in 2007 in a £11.4bn deal backed by the private equity giant KKR – had "no current plans" to start a search for a new chief executive.

The engine room of Alliance Boots's growth was its pharmaceutical wholesale arm, which grew revenues by 47.7 per cent to £8.84bn. This was largely driven by it acquiring Hedef Alliance, a Turkish pharmaceuticals wholesaler, and the Germany pharma specialist, Anzag, last year.

"We are continuing to look for acquisitions in emerging markets," Mr Fairweather said, adding that talks were "progressing" with Nanjing Pharmaceutical Group to take a stake in the Chinese wholesaler.