The Week Ahead: Updates due from Whitbread, Sports Direct, Carpetright, Go-Ahead and SuperGroup

SPORTS Direct and Costa owner Whitbread will prove there is still money to made in retailing when they provide updates to the City this week.

Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct International will unveil higher half-year profits on Thursday as it takes advantage of the demise of rival JJB Sports and benefits from Olympic fever.

The group, which has nearly 400 stores and owns brands including Slazenger, Donnay and Karrimor, is expected by brokers Numis to report a 20% rise in underlying earnings to �169 million.

Chief executive Dave Forsey said the period to September was buoyed by demand for products linked to the London Olympics and an “excellent” back to school period, and said in October trading had been “equally strong” since then.

The improvement by Sports Direct, which is majority owned by Newcastle United owner Mr Ashley, came in a period when rival JJB Sports conceded defeat in its battle for survival.

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Sports Direct bought 20 stores from JJB’s administrators but this meant the closure of another 133 sites with the loss of around 2,200 jobs.

Numis analyst Andrew Wade said: “As well as the benefit from JJB’s continued struggles, which may have been reduced through the quarter due to clearance activity, management pointed to benefits from the Olympics and a strong back to school period.”

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The City will be keen to hear on updates on potential acquisitions following reports that Mr Ashley is hunting down a stake in department store chain House of Fraser.

The founder of Sports Direct International is understood to have met unnamed shareholders to discuss buying out investors and creating a strategic partnership.

Sports acquired an 80% shareholding in retail chains USC and Cruise for �7 million last year and bought a 51% stake in premium clothing brand Flannels in the summer.

Leisure group Whitbread will reveal further strong growth in sales at its coffee business Costa on Tuesday amid ongoing speculation a spin-off will be on the cards.

Costa, which has nearly 1,400 outlets in the UK, is forecast by analysts at Barclays Equity Research to reveal like-for-like sales growth in its third quarter of 6%.

It has consistently been the top performer in the group’s portfolio, which also includes hotel chain Premier Inn and restaurants Beefeater and Brewers Fayre.

Shares in Whitbread are 50% higher than they were at the start of the year.

The coffee chain is also expected to benefit from recent bad publicity for Starbucks and Caffe Nero regarding their UK tax positions.

Wyn Ellis, analyst at brokers Numis Securities, said: “If Costa can demonstrate that the brand has legs in international markets then the earnings growth potential over the medium term should be transformational, paving the way for a possible spin-off for Costa.”

Whitbread financial director Chris Rogers was unveiled earlier this year as managing director at Costa, in a move which fuelled speculation that a demerger was on its way.

Analysts have previously estimated the Costa chain could be worth �1.5 billion.

Like Costa, Premier Inn is in the midst of an aggressive expansion plan. It hopes to add 10,000 new rooms after creating more than 3,500 this year, bringing its total to more than 47,000.

Premier has benefited from customers looking for cheap deals and an advertising campaign featuring comedian Lenny Henry, but sales have slowed in recent months and its restaurant division has also come under pressure as food and fuel costs rise.

Carpetright is expected to show further signs of a tentative recovery on Tuesday as the floor coverings chain reveals a bounce in half-year profits.

The group, which has 484 outlets in the UK, is forecast by brokers Numis Securities to report pre-tax profits of �7 million in the six months to the end of October, up from �1.4 million last year.

The group posted a small improvement in sales in the UK in its first quarter as self-help actions such as its drive to sell more beds, the extension of laminate ranges to more stores and the impact of shop refits helped to offset volatile trading conditions.

Its like-for-like sales figure increased 0.6% in the 12 weeks to October 13, following on from a rise of 1.7% in the previous quarter. The slowdown was largely due to the weather.

Matthew Taylor, analyst at Numis Securities, said: “Positive drivers include range extensions, notably beds and laminate floorings and the store refit programme.”

The UK improvement, which increases to 2.4% when excluding business achieved through insurers and housebuilders, has been offset by a sharp drop in sales in the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland.

Carpetright blamed weakening consumer confidence for the 12.2% drop in rest of Europe same-store sales in the period.

The group, whose profits have slumped from �62 million in 2008, is now under the management of new chief executive Darren Shapland.

Transport group Go-Ahead will face further questions over plans to grow its bus division when it reveals its first-half trading update on Tuesday.

The company currently generates an annual return of �70 million from a fleet of around 4,600 buses carrying some 1.7 million passengers a day.

It recently said it wants to take profits to �100 million a year by 2015/16 through “high quality services, innovation and marketing and cost efficiency”.

It comes as Go-Ahead faces up to uncertainty in its rail operation following the Department for Transport’s decision to postpone current rail franchise competitions in the wake of the West Coast mainline debacle.

Go-Ahead is behind a third of the UK’s rail journeys through its Govia joint venture, which runs the Southern, Southeastern and London Midland franchises.

Shares in the group have had a volatile year and broadly stand at the same price - 1255p per share - as they did in December last year.

Broker Nomura recently upgraded its recommendation on Go-Ahead from neutral to buy, adding the firm has “a self-help bus story that should offer underlying earnings momentum over the coming years”.

The Olympics resulted in much higher levels of rail passenger revenues and journeys in its first quarter, while underlying revenues at its bus division were 5% higher.

This was after fares increased by between 4% and 7% in April due to higher fuel costs and a cut in government grants for bus operators.

The majority of its bus operations are in southern England, particularly commuter growth corridors where demand for public transport is strong. The company’s margin from bus operations is currently just over 10%.

Superdry owner SuperGroup is expected to report higher profits in its half-year results on Wednesday after colder weather boosted sales of coats and hoodies.

However, the strong performance will be flattered by soft sales in the previous year, when the company was hit by problems with new warehouse management systems.

SuperGroup, which started life as a market stall in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, is forecast by brokers at Numis Securities to report a 33% rise in pre-tax profits to �17.4 million for the six months to the end of October.

The company, which has 105 UK and European retail stores, 70 UK and 52 international concessions and 122 franchised and licensed stores worldwide, reported a 3.9% rise in UK like-for-like sales for the period. Shares in the company have more than doubled since June.

Andrew Wade, analyst at Numis Securities, said: “Driven by the stabilisation in trading trend, clear tailwinds through the current year, and improved execution from the new management team, the share price has now recovered dramatically.”

SuperGroup reported a 27% increase in total sales to �92.4 million in the UK in the half year.

It recently came under fire over director bonus deals as 17% of investors failed to back its pay plans.

A fifth of investors also failed to back the re-election of founder and chief executive Julian Dunkerton amid criticism over share bonuses earmarked for chief operating officer Susanne Given and chief financial officer Shaun Wills.

But despite the shareholder protest, SuperGroup’s pay plans and director re-elections were passed as they received the majority of votes needed.

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