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The Investment Column: Iceland needs new direction

It is becoming increasingly clear that Iceland, the frozen food retailer, is in need of a new direction. Its role as a "top up" shop in the cut-throat supermarket sector just isn't providing the returns.

Hence last year's failed bid to buy the Littlewoods stores, which indicated a lack of confidence in the existing business.

Chief executive Malcolm Walker confirmed those suspicions yesterday when he hinted that although no acquisitions are on the horizon he would still like to do a deal.

The problem is that the market doesn't believe there is any real upside here. The shares trade on a heavily discounted price/earnings ratio of 10 but there is still no interest. If the share price does drift up from its current 155p to around 170p they are likely to be hit by heavy selling.

All this is hard on the management, which is doing all the right things but running to stand still.

The dismal 3.5 per cent fall in like- for-like sales in the first nine weeks of the second half has been reversed and comparative sales have risen by 2 per cent in the 17 weeks since January. Margins have also improved.

Iceland is also reining back its store opening programme and will now open 40 new stores during the year. This compares with a recent annual average of 50.

Last year's results were decent in a difficult market. Pre-tax profits in the year to December were 3.4 per cent higher at pounds 72.6m. Sales were flat at pounds 1.4bn.

With pounds 34m net cash, a share buy back is possible but this is unlikely to excite the market. Analysts have trimmed their profit forecasts for the current year to around pounds 76m.

With sluggish earnings growth prospects and price competition in the supermarket sector set to put more pressure on margins, the shares have few attractions.