Laura Ashley bucks trend with 62% profits rise

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The Independent Online

The fashion and furnishings retailer Laura Ashley yesterday shrugged off the high street's continuing woes to post a 62 per cent increase in pre-tax profits to £19.8m.

The profit surge – which includes a £2.3m pension credit – came despite an 8.7 per cent fall in same-store sales at the company, which has been attracting attention as a result of its steadily increasing its stake in bid target Moss Bros.

The chief executive Lillian Tan said: "The like-for-like sales fall is not a concern for us. We have been pushing through an ambitious programme which saw us open 33 stores this year. There will inevitably be some cannibalisation in areas where we have opened new stores."

Ms Tan also said the company planned to continue opening new stores at a similar rate this year: "We could open 30, 33 like last year, even 40. Conditions are tough on the high street but we have managed to improve our margin through improving supply. We remain focused on improving our product and our operational efficiency."

As part of the company's "store realignment" programme, 14 smaller outlets were closed and Laura Ashley said the adjusted fall in same store sales, taking this into account, was 5.9 per cent.

However, like-for-like sales have fallen further since the year end, down 8.8 per cent from 26 January to 15 March. The retailer reported a 30.5 per cent hike in online sales as it saw a further trend towards e-commerce, although mail order sales dropped 13.5 per cent.

Ms Tan was reluctant to be drawn on her company's intentions towards Moss Bros, amid mounting speculation that it could be prepared to table a bid. However, she described the stake building as "an investment opportunity, nothing more".

The Icelandic group Baugur already owns 29 per cent of Moss Bros, as well as chains including Karen Millen and Oasis, and said in December it was considering its own options for the retailer which could include a bid.

The company has tabled an indicative offer of 42p a share, although Laura Ashley, controlled by Malaysia's MUI Group, bought its most recent tranche of shares at 46p. The final dividend, at 2p a share, is twice the payout of a year ago.