Next is handing shareholders a special dividend payout after a strong performance from its home shopping arm helped it combat widespread discounting on the high street before Christmas.
The retailer said sales were up 2.9% in the two months to Christmas Eve, which was at the top end of revised sales guidance by the company when it issued a profit warning in October. Its shares led the FTSE 100 risers in early trading on Tuesday, with a gain of 4%, to £67.80.
Sales at Next stores edged up 0.5% during the period while sales at its Directory home shopping business surged 7.5%. The retailer also enjoyed a bumper closing week as Britons flocked to its shops to buy presents in the days leading up to Christmas.
“It looks like a last-minute pre-Xmas rush and the strength of Directory saved Next from the impact of all the recent high street discounting,” said independent retail analyst Nick Bubb, who referred to the retailer’s weekly sales graph that showed that after a difficult November every week in December was up on the previous year, “culminating in a huge last-minute rush”.
Next, which was forced to lower its sales and profits guidance after the warm autumn weather hit demand for its winter clothing ranges, said significantly more stock had gone into its end-of-season sale. Next is one of the few retailers that does not discount before Christmas and it said clearance rates were in line with its expectations. It now expected full-year profits to be within £765m to £785m.
Simon Wolfson, Next’s chief executive, also struck a positive tone about the coming year. He saidL “The economic outlook for the UK consumer looks relatively benign. Low inflation, an end to real wage decline, healthy credit markets and strong employment all paint a somewhat more positive picture than recent years.”
Next said it remained cautious when drawing up its sales budgets for the new financial year with the group pencilling in growth of between 2.5% and 7.5%. Profits were expected to grow in line with sales, the company added.
The retailer has been returning cash to shareholders by buying back shares as well as declaring special dividends. It has already paid three special dividends – each of 50p and together worth £223m this year – and on Tuesday confirmed plans for a fourth payout, also set at 50p a share.
Conlumino analyst Neil Saunders said Next’s performance was “solid” given it was lapping strong figures a year ago: “The figures are a vindication of Next’s refusal to engage in pre-Christmas discounting, including the popular Black Friday event,” he said.
“While this may have cost Next some sales growth over the reported sales period, we believe that it has not lost it much, if anything, in terms of profits. Indeed, this is reflected the profit guidance which is some £5m ahead of where it was in October.”
Saunders said that Next’s figures reflected the wider trend over Christmas with retailers’ sales bolstered by online and multichannel services such as click and collect.
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