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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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Thousands seek that special someone in Shanghai

SHANGHAI: The odds favored the men as thousands gathered to look for love in Shanghai at the eastern Chinese city’s largest-ever matchmaking party, paying for the privilege of searching for their other half.

Census data shows a rise in the percentage of older single women over the last decade, while the percentage of older single men has fallen, according to the China Daily — which experts said might be due to increasingly choosy women unwilling to settle for men with inferior education and living standards.

Organizers said there were three women for every two men, with 6,000 tickets sold to single woman and 4,000 to men.

“These days, girls are much more self-sufficient and independent,” said Zhou Juemin, president of the Shanghai Matchmaking Association, which organized the two-day event at the weekend.

“Also, there’s a lot of work pressure in society nowadays, so many girls are busy with their jobs and perhaps tend to consider career advancement above marriage — so some of them are no longer young.”

Long queues of singles waited for their turn for five-minute chats with the opposite sex in the ultimate blind-date event.

“If your standard of living is lower than mine in every aspect, but if we can relate well to each other, I wouldn’t mind — because if we relate well, there would be good chemistry,” said 27-year-old Zue Tianwei.

“Then the issues of social order would no longer be a problem. I guess it depends on how strong my feelings are.”

Many men, for their part, said they were willing to shrug off traditional thinking that once made marrying a woman of higher educational and living standards unacceptable.

“Regarding girls who have a higher education level or standard of living, I wouldn’t mind pursuing them because this is a two-way thing,” said Li Jianxun, a 27-year-old native of central China who has lived in Shanghai for two years.

“As long as the feelings are mutual, it is still possible to interact and get to know each other.”

Hopefuls from nearby provinces travelled to Shanghai to take part, among them some who had already married and divorced.

A few, bolder than others, held up signs to distinguish themselves from the crowd. One said, “I wanted to fall in love early, but it’s already late.”

Around 3,000 parents also tagged along, with Organizers allocating a special corner for them to advertise information on their unmarried children. Some kept an eye out for suitable future in-laws.

Qi Xiong, who helped his son by taking pictures to keep track of potential matches, said he still felt that men should not look for wives with higher social status than themselves.

“Generally speaking, if you are a girl and your education level or income is too high, we’re more likely to oppose it,” he said, noting that a simple university degree was sufficient.

“A huge difference in education levels would make it difficult to communicate. If both parties begin at the same starting line, and want to achieve success in the future, they can work at it together.”