STOCK MARKET WEEK: Expect few thrills from no-frills, pile-it- high Kwik Save's results

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The Independent Online
Although nine heavyweights grace this week's results schedule it is a company which once seemed destined for blue-chip glory but sadly lost its way which could gather the most column inches of comment.

For years a no-frills, cut-price policy served Kwik Save well. But times change. Today the company seems to be in dire need of a new role as its traditional presence in the fiercely competitive food retailing market is squeezed unmercifully by the superstores on one side and the overseas stampede to challenge its basic pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap style.

At its peak, with its shares at 840p, Kwik Save was regarded as a possible candidate for membership of the exclusive Footsie club. Profits were moving ahead impressively and reached pounds 135.5m two years ago. Since then chill winds have blown through the Kwik Save check-outs, forcing chief executive Graeme Bowler into a root-and-branch review of the group's operations.

On Thursday the 1,000-strong chain is due to roll out its year's results; they will be poor. More importantly they should be accompanied by the results of the review and just how Kwik Save intends to reshape to preserve its right to exist in the retail market.

Naturally, as Kwik Save has conducted its agonising reappraisal the stock market has speculated about the direction the company may be forced to take. There are suggestions it may decide neighbourhood stores are the new name of the game and transform many of its outlets. It could also develop stores on the lines of the Tesco Metro concept. A distribution shake-up is on the cards.

Whatever course it adopts there is a deep foreboding that the axe will come down on many shops and jobs. And the depressed profits, say down 24 per cent to pounds 84m, could be savaged by reorganisation costs. A dividend cut, probably 25 per cent to 15p a share, is expected.

With the shares weak, bumping along near their year's low at 319p, there have been the inevitable rounds of takeover speculation.

At one time the Hong Kong interests of the Keswick family, with nearly 30 per cent of the capital, looked the most obvious bidders. Kwik Save seemed to represent an escape route for the family's food interests before the Chinese takeover of the colony.

Nowadays the occasional talk is of a continental strike. Aldi and Lidl, the German discounters already making life so much more difficult for Kwik Save, are regarded as the most likely predators. Only last week a vague story was circulating that Aldi had spent pounds 2m on due diligence and would strike before, or just after, the group's figures.

It's probably just a coincidence that Shoprite, which was forced to retreat at great cost from a once high-flying food discounting venture, selling most of its outlets to Kwik Save, is reporting today. Losses are expected.

Marks & Spencer, at the other end of the food price spectrum, and such big retail guns as Boots and Burton are on this week's results list.

Marks is expected to continue its majestic progress, lifting interim profits from pounds 387.1m to pounds 443m. With the company indulging for the first time in an interim results presentation there is little doubt it has an impressive trading story up its corporate sleeve.

Boots, another with half-year results, should produce around pounds 235m against pounds 217.9m. Absorbing, for the first time, all the struggling Do-it-all chain's losses and the cost of its continental build-up could remove the shine from what should have been a strong domestic retail performance.

Burton, year's results, remains on the recovery road. Profits of pounds 150m, up from pounds 93.1m, look likely.

The brewery profit season gets under way with Whitbread rolling out interim results tomorrow. Although only 16 per cent of its operating profits now flow from beer it ranks as the fourth-largest brewer in the land and could move into third spot when, as seems likely, Allied Domecq retires from the beerage.

Whitbread gets 31 per cent of its profits from restaurants and leisure - the area where most of its expansion energies are being lavished. It has already acquired the Pelican restaurants chain this year and last week confirmed it was in talks to buy BrightReasons, the Bella Pasta and Pizzaland chain with more than 100 outlets. The brewer claims to be the second-largest operator - after McDonald's - in Britain's booming eating-out market.

Interim profits should show that what was once a staid old brewer is still managing a strong profit ferment - with an 11 per cent gain to pounds 173m.

Other big guns firing this week include Associated British Foods and Unilever. ABF is in line today for year's profits of pounds 420m against pounds 375m and Unilever, third-quarter results on Friday, should manage a modest advance to pounds 820m in the eyes of NatWest Securities or a pounds 10m fall to pounds 776m if Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull is on the mark. The investment houses agree the dividend will be increased to 10.3p.

British Airways, British Petroleum and National Grid are others on the results pad. So is Mercury Asset Management, once the investment arm of SG Warburg.

Its interim figures could surprise as its reaps the reward from what has been a buoyant investment market.

Profits could well jump 27 per cent to pounds 80.5m. The company is sitting on a pounds 100m cash pile.

At one time MAM was one of the market's favourite takeover candidates with many big financial institutions said to be interested in snapping up the investment house once it was freed from Warburg control. But, as is so often the case, predators have not emerged and bid stories have faded. Even so the shares are nudging their peak at 1,137.5p.