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Next sales on target as online business outperforms

Total sales at the clothes retailer between 1 August and 24 December rose 3.1% compared with a year earlier, ignoring the effect of rising VAT.Next Directory sales grew 16.9%.
But its High Street business, which sees some two-thirds of sales, recorded a 2.7% fall, sending Next’s share price 4.3% lower in early London trading.Next has seen its share price rise 39% over the past 12 months, easily outperforming a 5% fall in the broader FTSE 100 index.Shares in some other big retailers also fell in the wake of Next’s announcement, which was the first trading update of the year from a major High Street chain.

Home Retail Group – owner of Homebase and Argos – dropped 4.7%, while car accessories chain Halfords was down 3%.
Profit margins
Next reconfirmed its full-year profits forecast at £565m, narrowing the range to plus-or-minus £7m.
The total sales growth figure of 3.1% was in the middle of its previous guidance of 2.5% to 4%, despite the “slightly disappointing” numbers from its 500 stores.

Next expressed uncertainty in its statement as to why the High Street performance had been so weak, particularly considering that last year’s sales had been hurt by cold weather.One possibility cited in its statement was its long-standing policy of not cutting the price of its products in the run-up to Christmas.

“Next’s own admission of disappointment is a setback to its hitherto robust growth story,” said Richard Hunter, head of equities at brokerage Hargreaves Lansdown.

“The fact that the company did not discount its products in the approach to Christmas may have been a factor, whilst the more general consumer malaise has yet to be corroborated by updates from its rivals.

“In addition, higher sales do not necessarily translate to higher profits, so the fact that the company has been able to maintain operating margins may yet play into its hands.”

Richard Perks, analyst at research firm Mintel, confirmed this view.

“These figures from Next are really pretty good I think,” he told the BBC.

“OK, Next may be – in sales terms – held back by the fact that it wasn’t discounting, but in profit terms it will be a lot better off.”

Mr Perks said he was optimistic about retail sales across the UK – predicting a 4% rise in December.

“People are reluctant to cut back any more on retail, and are cutting back elsewhere, particularly on leisure,” although he added that the rising cost of food was still crimping spending.

Next said it was cautiously optimistic about its end of season sales – which began after the end of its latest reporting period – and expected results to be slightly ahead of budget.

The retailer said it expected sales this year to be helped by a probable freeze in the price of its products.

It forecast generating £200m surplus cash in the year ahead, which it said it would return to shareholders via share buybacks.

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Deadly floods ravage Brazil’s Minas Gerais

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A total of 66 towns cities in Minas Gerais state have declared a state of emergency.In the town of Ouro Preto two taxi drivers died when a bus station was destroyed by a landslide.
Flood waters are also threatening hillside communities in Rio de Janeiro state that were devastated a year ago.

Flooding is common in southeastern Brazil during the rainy season. Nationwide, more than 2m people have been affected by this year’s rains, Brazil’s civil defence force says.

About 10,300 people have been evacuated, and 3,000 homes have been destroyed.

Many roads have been blocked, making it difficult to get help and supplies to affected areas.

Early warning

Last year floods killed more than 800 people, in what officials said was the worst natural disaster ever to befall Brazil.
Most of the deaths were in towns in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro such as Nova Friburgo, which are again suffering from intense rains.

Since then, the Brazil government has set up an early warning system to monitor weather rainfall and ensure people evacuate before floods strike.

There has also been heavy investment in flood protection.

Minas Gerais state governor Antonio Anastasia said disaster prevention measures had proved effective.

“Given the quantity of rain, we can observe that the system of alerts and evacuation are working well,” he said.

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Darren Clarke hails ‘golden era’ for European golf

Open champion Darren Clarke believes European golf is experiencing another “golden era”.

The 43-year-old won his first major last summer while fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy triumped at the US Open and England’s Luke Donald finished on top of the money lists.

“Golf over here is very strong at the moment,” Clarke said.

“It’s like the sort of dominance we had in the late 80s and early 90s, we’re back to that golden era.”

Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal were regulars in the world’s top 10 during that period and, fast forward to 2011, four Europeans occupied the top four spots in the final week of the year.

Donald and McIlroy are joined by England’s Lee Westwood and Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who won the 2010 PGA Championship, in the top four.

“We’re incredibly fortunate,” added Clarke, who ended a 20-year wait to land his first major, at Royal St George’s, last July.
“You look at Rory and the way he’s been playing, and what he did at the US Open.

“And you’ve got Luke, who finished number one in the money list in the United States and Europe. I don’t think that will be done again. What Luke achieved was monumental.”

The Northern Ireland player, who has played in four Ryder Cup-winning teams, and was a victorious vice-captain in 2010, said it was only a matter of time before world number two Westwood would join the elite.

“My good mate is knocking on the door – he’ll win a major, or majors, sooner rather than later,” he added.Another friend Clarke believes will again be challenging for the big prizes is Tiger Woods.

The former world number one and 14-time major winner, who fell as low as 58 in the rankings in November, broke his two-year winless streak by taking the Chevron World Challenge in December. However, Woods is still without a PGA Tour win since November 2009.

“I spoke to him after he won the tournament – he was obviously delighted,” said Clarke, who became an OBE in the New Year Honours list.”The game needs Tiger. You remember the excitement he brought to the game when he first came on the scene.”I’m looking forward to him taking on the likes of Rory, Lee and Luke in 2012. As talented as Tiger is, he won’t be far away from his best.”

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