Belfast Telegraph

Laura Ashley cuts its cloth to maintain trimmer figure

I t may be synonymous with long, puff-sleeved dresses featuring floral patterns, but Laura Ashley is fighting back against the changing retail scene with plans to open gift and accessories stores.

The chain, which now sells more home furnishings than clothes, predicted better-than-expected profits yesterday despite the impact of freezing weather and economic downturn.

Laura Ashley said like-for-like sales were up by 2.7% in the 19 weeks to December 11 - better than predicted but still an unwelcome slowdown from 6.2% growth in the first six months of 2010.

It blamed factors beyond its control for the weaker sales but insists efforts to trim its store portfolio -including closing 12 of its less successful units and opening two more shops - had boosted margins.

There are now a total of 221 stores in the UK and Ireland, including two in Belfast and one in Bangor, Co Down.

The company said yesterday: "Despite the current economic uncertainty and adverse weather conditions in the UK, we remain confident that full-year trading will be ahead of the board's expectations."

And reflecting wider trends in retail, as we become more reliant on shopping from the comfort of our own homes, internet sales were up by nearly 30%.

Shares rose 4% on the good news, and its profits forecast was raised from £14.4m to £15.8m.

Numis analyst Andrew Wade added: "With the key Christmas trading weeks still to come we see further scope for upgrades."

It's a far cry from the company's origins in the 1950s, when married couple Laura and Bernard Ashley started printing fabric from their kitchen in London.

They had been inspired by a Women's Institute exhibition on traditional handicrafts at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Laura Ashley herself died in 1985, and Sir Bernard last year.

But their company lives - and evolves - long after they have gone.

In a move which may be an attempt to emulate the success of rival chain Accessorise, Laura Ashley opened its first gift and accessories store at London's Liverpool Street station in the summer, and hopes to expand the retail concept to a high street near you very soon.

Changed times indeed for the company since it was founded on that kitchen table.

But with the company now generating a growing proportion of its revenue online - 7% of its sales last year were from the internet - perhaps it's fitting that more Laura Ashley browsing is being conducted from kitchen tables.