By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) -British fashion retailer Next forecast a big rebound in current year profits as the economy recovers after they were halved in 2020-21 by the COVID-19 pandemic which shuttered the company’s stores.
Simon Wolfson, Next’s chief executive, said his best guess was that the consumer economy, at least in the short term, would be healthier than many presume.
“It seems likely that a combination of pent-up demand along with a healthy overall increase in personal savings will serve to keep the consumer economy moving forward,” he said.
Wolfson expects an immediate pick-up in trade when, as per Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, non-essential shops reopen in England on April 12.
“There was definitely a bounce at the end of the lockdown last year and I would be surprised if the same thing didn’t happen again,” he told Reuters.
But he said there was a big question mark over the level of store sales in the longer term.
“The pandemic has served to accelerate a pre-existing social trend – the move to more online shopping. History has been given a shove and, having moved forward, seems unlikely to reverse,” he said.
Next’s pretax profit fell 53% to 342 million pounds ($471 million) in the year to the end of January, meeting company guidance.
With most of Next’s stores closed for a significant portion of the year, group sales fell by 17% to 3.6 billion pounds.
Yet Next has shown resilience during the crisis, benefiting from its long-established online operation.
Rivals with weaker or no online business, notably Primark, have seen far larger falls in sales. Others, such as Topshop-owner Arcadia, and Debenhams have collapsed.
Shares in Next were up 2% at 0858 GMT, extending 2021 gains to 13%, after it raised its central guidance for 2021-22 pretax profit to 700 million pounds from the 670 million pounds forecast in January.
It also said online sales in the first eight weeks of the year had been stronger than expected and up more than 60% on two years ago.
Next maintained its forecast for flat full price sales in 2021-22 versus 2019-20 – a two-year comparison.
Given the uncertainty over COVID-19, Next is not paying a dividend for 2020-21 and its share buyback programme remains suspended.
($1 = 0.7268 pounds)
(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Jason Neely and Hugh Lawson)