The private equity firm Opcapita is leading the race to acquire Comet, the ailing 248-store UK electricals retailer that is owned by Kesa Electricals.
John Clare, the former chief executive of Dixons Retail who is advising Opcapita, has increasingly been in Comet's stores in the past week examining the loss-making chain.
Opcapita partner David Hamid – the former head of Halfords and ex-Dixons executive – has also stepped up his work in its shops. Despite speculation in the retail property market, people familiar with the matter yesterday vehemently denied that Opcapita has any intention of closing large numbers of Comet stores if it gains control of the chain.
The retail restructuring specialist Hilco has also has been in discussions with Kesa after submitting a bid to acquire Comet. While Hilco could still land the deal, Kesa – which owns the Darty chain on the Continent – appears to have focused on Opcapita in the past fortnight.
Kesa, Hilco and Opcapita declined to comment. Comet's owner is expected to seal the sale of the chain before its half-year results on 7 December. But Kesa would then need approval from its shareholders to offload Comet. The group may then change its name to Darty and move its stock market listing from London to Paris.
The negotiations between Kesa and its two suitors have been fraught with complications. This is because Comet has a pension deficit of £49m, a working capital requirement of £50m and the City forecasts its losses could more than double to £20m in the financial year to the end of April.
Previously, it had been estimated that Kesa would have to pay a dowry of more than £150m to offload Comet. But it has emerged that, while Kesa could still sell the UK chain in its entirety, it could keep an economic interest in Comet as part of any sale to Opcapita.
Comet has endured a torrid time recently. In June, it unveiled plans to close 17 stores after making a full-year loss of £8.9m. The retailer's like-for-like sales plummeted by 22.1 per cent for the quarter to 31 July.
But its rivals are also struggling. Dixons Retail posted a 10 per cent fall in UK sales for the 12 weeks to 23 July. The pan-European group plans to exit 162 of its 612 Currys and PC stores in the UK and Ireland. Best Buy UK could also pull the plug on its 11 shops after a conducting a review.