View from City Road: Body Shop smooths away a few wrinkles

Generous applications of rejuvenating cream by Gordon Roddick, the financial brains behind the marketing miracle that was Body Shop, have removed some of the blemishes that have so upset its followers. Spurred by last year's disastrous performance on British high streets, he has realised the importance of selling products, rather than just relying on an oh- so-politically-correct image to keep them moving off the shelf. Mr Roddick is also starting to appreciate that investors will applaud hectic international expansion only if it is properly controlled from the centre.

Yesterday's results suggest that his treatment has ironed out a few of the worst wrinkles. Concentrating more on customers' needs - cosmetics appeal to a far wider audience than white grape tonic, for example - has almost arrested the like-for-like sales declines (though partly, it has to be admitted, because last autumn's trading was so awful). The simple expedient of tailoring stock production to customers' demand has left the balance sheet in much better shape.

Outside Britain, Body Shop does appear to be one of the few retailers to have found an exportable formula. But it is easy to expand by opening new shops, particularly when they are franchised and the capital costs are low.

The break-neck pace of expansion - about 140 new shops this year, on top of 173 opened last year - suggests that even the supposedly comparable sales increases quoted by the company will be distorted by the maturing of recently opened stores.

Investors, like television journalists, are always looking for reasons to knock Body Shop. The results may not give them the ammunition they need, but neither do they give a convincing reason to applaud.

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