Oct 11, 2011
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N Brown says trade volatile as markets tumble

Oct 11, 2011

LONDON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - N Brown , the British internet and catalogue home shopping firm, said recent trading had been extremely volatile as its older customers fretted over the impact of plummeting financial markets.

Shares in the Manchester, northwest England, based company, which targets mature and larger customers, fell 2 percent on Tuesday after it said like-for-like sales declined 1.5 percent in the six weeks to Oct. 8.

Chief Executive Alan White told Reuters trading in the first two weeks of September had been slow, before recovering in the final two weeks of the month. It was then hit by the mini-heatwave in early October, before picking-up again.

"The newsflow in that period in terms of the financial markets coming to an apocalyptic end, particularly (for) the older customers who read newspapers and avidly watch the news, its all been things which would make you say 'I'll just be a little bit more cautious'," he said.

UK consumers' disposable incomes are being squeezed by rising prices, muted wage growth and a government austerity drive.

Industry data on Tuesday showed British retail sales unexpectedly ticked higher in September. However, the pressure on consumers was laid bare last week as the UK's largest retailer Tesco posted one of its biggest-ever falls in underlying sales and profit warnings were issued by mother and baby products firm Mothercare and youth fashion retailer SuperGroup

However, White is hopeful the consumer environment will improve in 2012.

"My expectation is even if things don't start getting better then they should stop getting worse," he said, pointing to the anniversary of the January 2011 hike in VAT sales tax and significant reductions in most commodity prices from their high levels in early 2011.

"Whereas we have had to put our prices up by 8 percent or so in the spring and the same in the autumn, our expectation is that prices will be stable if you take 2012 as a whole and maybe even lower," said White.

N Brown made a pretax profit of 44.8 million pounds ($70.2 million) in the 26 weeks to Aug. 27.

That was 5 percent ahead of the 42.3 million pounds made in the same period last year but a touch below some analysts' expectations.

The group, whose brands include Simply Be, Jacamo, Marisota and Oxendales, said revenue rose 4 percent to 363.7 million pounds. It is paying an interim dividend of 5.29 pence, up 5 percent.

Shares in N Brown, which prior to Tuesday's update had increased by 15 percent over the last year, were down 5.8 pence at 270.5 pence at 0905 GMT, valuing the business at about 766 million pounds.

"We suspect that there may be some downward (profit) revisions (of 5-7 percent) to numbers on the back of today's update," said analysts at Singer Capital Markets.

White said the firm's trial of Simply Be in the United States has so far drawn a positive response. He has high hopes N Brown can progress in a U.S. outsize womenswear market that is worth $35 billion a year.

The firm is also trialing Simply Be stores to extend its multi-channel offer and provide a high street refuge for the fashionable larger lady. The first two recently opened in Liverpool and Bury.

"The individual customer feedback has been amazing, we've had customers in tears," said the CEO.

"We are definitely giving them something different and servicing a need."

By James Davey

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