Blacks Leisure warmed by the big chill

FREEZING winter weather helped outdoor clothing retailer Blacks Leisure smash City forecasts with a 10.2 per cent Christmas sales surge.

News of the like-for-like sales hike in its key September-to-January trading period lifted the group's shares 5.6 per cent to close at 42.25p.

Blacks said the strong performance came despite tough comparatives a year earlier, when it reported a 14.9 per cent increase in sales. The group, which has 15 Millets and Blacks stores in Yorkshire, added margins were up on a year ago.

"The group has performed strongly during the key Christmas trading period highlighting the strength of our offering in what continues to be a challenging retail market," said chief executive Neil Gillis.

The group was forced to restructure in 2009, closing underperforming stores to avoid administration. Last year it raised 20m to accelerate a turnaround programme.

In recent months it has invested in 12 new or rebranded stores. Yesterday the group said these stores have continued to perform well, and represent almost 10 per cent of group sales. It plans to open a new Blacks store and convert a Millets to its new format in February.

Mr Gillis added: "The turnaround programme remains on track and we enter the New Year in a positive financial position and focussed on continuing to deliver the benefits of the turnaround strategy.

"The store opening programme has performed well this year."

Blacks added it is still in talks with potential suitors, after appointing McQueen Limited as advisers in October to assess a number of unsolicited approaches. Reports claim Blacks received at least two approaches from private equity firms.

"We remain in discussion with a number of parties who have put forward indicative offers for the whole and/or parts of the business. This process is on-going," the firm said.

Blacks added it is in line to meet its full-year forecasts, with the strong winter performance helping it offset weak summer trading. Its total sales since August 28 were down about 10m on a year earlier to 85.4m, which Blacks said was largely down to its store closure programme.

Analysts said the firm benefited from Britain's pre-Christmas cold snap.