Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Retailers in the spotlight

Home Retail Group is the parent company of Argos and Homebase

Argos and Homebase parent Home Retail Group and department store chain Debenhams will report back from the retail sector next week, with consumer goods giant Unilever giving its latest view on the emerging market slowdown.

Argos and Homebase owner Home Retail Group will report a first-half sales recovery driven by better summer weather and amid Britain's improving housing market.

But the group's profits will come under more pressure when it reports results for the six months to the end of August on Wednesday.

DIY chain Homebase posted a bigger-than-expected jump in like-for-like sales of 11% in the 13 weeks to August 31, while Argos rose 2.7%.

That helped underlying sales at the Homebase chain grow 5.9% across the whole of the first half. Like-for-like sales at Argos were up 2.3% during the six months.

However, margins at both businesses fell during the half after volatile weather between March and June hurt Homebase and Argos suffered as it expanded in the fiercely-competitive electronics space.

Home Retail is trying to reinvigorate the Argos high street chain, recently announcing a trial with eBay, which will allow customers of the auction website to pick up products at around 150 Argos stores throughout the UK.

Last year, chief executive Terry Duddy set out plans to grow Argos sales from £3.9 billion to £4.5 billion a year in 2018 in a digital push involving the closure or relocation of some stores and a cut in the print circulation of the catalogue.

Mr Duddy, one of the UK's longest serving retail bosses, is standing down in July after 15 years with the group.

Analysts at N+1 Singer said Home Retail will benefit from current trends, but faces big challenges over the longer-term.

They said: "The business continues to benefit from near-term tailwinds including favourable product cycles and competitor weakness, however we continue to harbour concerns that greater structural change might be required at Argos and the Homebase refurbishment programme is overly cash-hungry."

They see the group edging revenues up 2% to £5.59 billion during the year and expect adjusted pre-tax profits to climb to £97.5 million from £91.1 million.

Drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline will face more questions over a damaging b ribery probe in China on Wednesday when it publishes results for the three months to the end of September.

The group admitted during the summer that some top executives appeared to have broken the law over a scandal in which funds were alleged to have been paid to doctors and health officials to boost sales and raise prices.

Glaxo has admitted the investigation will have an impact on the company's performance in China, where it makes around 3% to 4% of its sales and has kicked off an independent review to establish what happened.

Meanwhile the group is expected to underline its strong pipeline of drugs, after launching two new cancer drugs during the quarter and one to tackle HIV.

Analysts at Panmure Gordon said its new respiratory drugs could be "game-changing", but said it faces headwinds from exchange rates as well as the China probe.

They said: "It is not contentious to say that Glaxo has the best respiratory pipeline.

"The company has been through the majority of its patent expiries, big liability settlements and boasts a strong balance sheet and very little mergers and acquisition risk."

Analysts on average expect the group to grow pre-tax profits to £1.8 billion during the quarter from £1.7 billion a year earlier. And despite the impact from China, they see revenues climbing to £6.6 billion from £6.5 billion.

Glaxo recently agreed a deal to sell soft drinks brands Lucozade and Ribena to Orangina Schweppes owner Suntory for £1.35 billion.

It is selling the historic brands to Japanese drinks group Suntory Beverage & Food after concluding they would grow better under a different owner.

Instead it plans to increase the focus of its consumer healthcare business, which includes brands such as Sensodyne, Panadol, Aquafresh and Nicorette.

Whitbread will report half-year results on Tuesday following recent speculation over plans to spin-off its Costa Coffee chain.

The market talk helped deliver a surge in its share price, which had lost some of its shine after its last trading update revealed a testing summer for the group as the hot weather knocked Costa's sales growth.

Whitbread, which also owns the Premier Inn hotel chain and Beefeater and Brewers Fayre pubs, said trading conditions were flat across the country as household budgets remained under intense pressure, with the exception of London where business is booming.

Costa grew like-for-like sales by 3% in the 11 weeks to mid-August as temperatures soared, compared with 8% underlying growth during an exceptionally cold March to May quarter.

Group-wide underlying sales were up 2.1% during the 11 week period, compared with 3.1% growth in its first quarter.

Despite the second quarter set back, analysts expect interim pre-tax profits to increase by 11% to £213 million.

Investors will be hoping for signs that trading has returned to normal at Costa so far in the second half as the cooler weather should boost demand for coffee, while the market will be keen for improvement at its restaurants arm.

Its restaurants saw underlying sales dip 0.1% since the start of March, as its mainly food-based pubs failed to earn a major boost from the heatwave.

Bosses will also likely be grilled on any potential sale or demerger of the Costa business, but some analysts are doubtful of a disposal in the short term.

Department store chain Debenhams posts annual figures on Thursday after a mixed year for the group due to volatile weather conditions.

The firm, which has 236 stores across 27 countries, warned over profits in March due to the impact of January's snowstorms, while dismal spring weather also dampened demand for new season ranges.

But an impressive online performance, together with buoyant trading over the July heatwave, helped offset some of the earlier sales woes with like-for-like sales up 2% overall in the year to August 31.

The sales rebound is expected to have helped limit the bottom line hit from earlier in the year, with analysts expecting a 3% fall in full-year pre-tax profits to £153 million.

Online sales have been a star performer for the group, rising by 46.2% over the year.

It has increased its market share in fashion and online thanks to store revamps and the addition of a raft of new designers, including Hammond & Co by Patrick Grant - its first new designer menswear brand for 10 years.

Buoyant trade in its international business has added to the resurgent performance, with its Magasin du Nord chain posting a 6% leap in full-year like-for-like sales, as reported in sterling.

But any update on current trading will be watched closely in the wake of rival Marks & Spencer's recently launched star-studded autumn/winter clothing launch aimed at turning around its womenswear sales.

Andrew Wade, retail analyst at Numis Securities, said despite the online success, "we retain our negative stance on Debenhams, concerned by the declining UK profitability".

Flora and Hellmann's firm Unilever sent shockwaves through the consumer goods sector late last month when it issued a surprise warning due to worse-than-expected trading in emerging markets.

The firm, which updates on Thursday, said emerging market sales growth was expected to have slowed to between 3% and 3.5% in the third quarter, against market expectations of around 5%, sending shares in the firm and rivals such as Cillit Bang to Vanish rival Reckitt Benckiser sharply lower.

Unilever blamed fluctuating currencies for the slowdown, with emerging market currencies having suffered in recent months, hitting profits at firms trading with those countries.

This has added to a more general slowdown in demand as economic growth in many of these regions has eased.

A raft of competitors have since added to concerns over emerging market conditions, with Nestle and Danone confirming similar trends.

Emerging markets, such as Brazil, India and Thailand, are crucial to Unilever, making up around half of its sales.

It has also suffered as developed markets remain under pressure, with sales expected to be flat to down in the third quarter.

But it gave hope of a turnaround, claiming the final quarter would see a sales improvement.

Bosses are likely to face questions over the firm's confidence over the fourth quarter and action on prices following the currency pressures.

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