Belfast Telegraph

Will Next chapter spell a happy ending for retail?

By Margaret Canning

Northern Bank has said it is "comfortable" with a report into its finances which predicts more bad debts for the province's second-biggest bank.

The tide may have turned for Next, with the clothes and homeware chain today due to report better-than-expected results for the Christmas period .

Not so long ago the retailer was a harbinger of gloom, and warned that it may have to put prices up due to the rising costs of raw materials.

Last year it also estimated that the pre-Christmas snows had cost it £22m in lost sales.

But despite that tough start to 2011, as the year progressed Next, which has its roots in J Hepworth -amp; Sons, founded in Leeds in 1864, has held steady while chains of a shorter vintage have struggled.

Analysts attribute Next's steady performance to a number of factors. Its catalogue-plus-high-street approach - through the Next Directory and bricks and mortar stores - has left it in nimble shape for the challenges of online shopping.

It has also been pragmatic about the move towards out-of-town centres and has created shopping destinations around Northern Ireland at Sprucefield, Belfast's Boucher Road and Newry's Damolly Retail Park among others.

Another crucial factor has been its determination to resist dropping prices in the run-up to Christmas, instead saving the goodies for its famous Boxing Day sale.

Families queue up outside Next stores from the early hours of Boxing Day, when less bargain-hungry punters, such as this writer, are still asleep. Mums and dads have been known kit out their children for the whole year after one day's visit to Next.

Yet elsewhere, rivals like Debenhams and Marks and Spencer were discounting in the run-up to Christmas as if their existence depended on it - and perhaps it did. M-amp;S was particularly noticeable for its successive 25% discounts on ranges such as sleepwear and knitwear.

But Next, which has 19 stores in Northern Ireland employing over 1,000 people, carried on regardless and made other competitors look slightly insecure.

Next joins John Lewis kicking off the Christmas results season, a period already shrouded in gloom after profit warnings from Game, Thorntons, French Connection and Ocado.

All will make interesting reading, but it will be encouraging for all if Next and John Lewis have some positive news to set the ball rolling.