The Investment Column: Budgens runs to stand still

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The Independent Online
For a tiddler in a cut-throat market, Budgens has not done badly over the past couple of years.

It has juggled its 108-store portfolio to match the offer to local markets, improved its fresh food to attract "top-up" shoppers and concentrated on fine-tuning distribution to cut costs.

Budgens has even signed some innovative link-ups such as with BP and Q8 to open convenience stores on petrol forecourts. It has 11 such sites with plans for 20 to 25 by next April.

Meanwhile the group has expanded its higher-margin own-label range to more than 25 per cent of goods sold, compared with just 16 per cent three years ago.

A further 300 own-label lines will be launched this year.

But the problem with Budgens is that, in the longer term, it is hard to see just where the company can go in a market increasingly dominated by giants.

Its results for the year to 27 April were in line with expectations, with profits up 19.7 per cent to pounds 9.1m. But the sales line looks more problematic.

Like-for-like sales rose by just 1 per cent during the year and are up by 2 per cent in current trading.

In the second half, underlying sales actually fell by 3 per cent as new openings by the competition ate into market share. Rival openings in November alone knocked 2 per cent off Budgens' sales.

Budgens' management will keep adapting the portfolio, but the challenge will remain one of trying to attract convenience-store shoppers faster than it loses primary shoppers to Tesco et al.

The shares, up 0.25p to 42.25p, are barely above its net asset value of 42p per share, so are hardly expensive.

Takeover speculation may provide further support, though there is no obvious predator.

On Panmure Gordon's forecast of pounds 10.5m, the shares are on a forward rating of 10. On balance, about right.