The Investment Column: Boots reinforces sales rise hopes

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The Independent Online
It is little wonder Boots' shares jumped 15p to 599p yesterday. Coming after Wednesday's bullish retail sales figures, Boots' update on current trading at its annual meeting confirmed hopes that a retail recovery could be under way.

The shares have had a rocky time since Boots agreed to take control of WH Smith's half of the Do It All DIY business in June. And there have also been doubts about the impact on the chemist chain if re-sale price maintenance were to be removed from over-the-counter medicines.

But yesterday's figures showed good performances across the board, even from the long tail of problematic businesses that have so often proved a disappointment. Group sales in the three months to June were 7.2 per cent ahead of the same period last year, with like- for-like sales at Boots the Chemists 5 per cent higher.

There were strong rises in the ill-starred DIY businesses. Do It All, which has been the real dog of the portfolio for years, increased comparative sales by 8.4 per cent, though the company stressed it was too early to say if this progress could be sustained.

AG Stanley, the Homestyle and Fads operation, also notched up an 8 per cent sales rise, although again it is early days, and the group still has a heavy presence in weaker high street sites. Even Halfords, which has often looked like it has been running on empty, has finally put some gas in the tank and pushed sales 3 per cent higher.

Elsewhere in the business, Boots Contracting and Boots Healthcare International also improved sales, with the healthcare business doing particularly well.

All this was backed by upbeat comments from chairman Sir Michael Angus, who said there were "clear signs of a recovery in consumer confidence" in the current year. He added that market conditions looked more encouraging than for some time.

Boots' ongoing investment of pounds 300m in its chemist chain will see a marketing push for health and beauty products and new stores added in seven different formats. Also to come is the second trial of the Advantage loyalty card in Boots the Chemist, though there are still no plans for a national roll- out.

Kleinwort Benson edged its profit forecasts up for the company to pounds 525m for the current year, which puts the shares on a forward rating of 16.

They are still a way off the 646p reached in April, and the DIY improvement could prove to be short- lived. This makes the forecast about right.

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