Total group sales rose 7.6% to £2.2bn compared to 2019. That was entirely driven by online sales. Pre-tax profits were up 5.9%, reaching £346.7m.
Full price sales in the first eight weeks of the second half were up 20% on 2019, compared to second-half guidance of 6% growth. As a result, Next is upgrading guidance for the fourth time this year. It expects full price sales to rise 10% for the full year, while pre-tax profits guidance has also been upped by £36m to £800m.
The shares rose 2.6% following the announcement.
Even Next is embarrassed it's had to upgrade guidance again. That's the fourth time this year.
The group's also announced a special dividend of 110p per share. A bricks and mortar retailer that feels comfortable enough to hand out surplus cash is something of a miracle in the current climate.
The beat has come down to a very strong online performance, especially in third party LABEL products, home and childrenswear. The vast majority of lost sales from store closures and reduced capacity have been offset. The exceptional online business is a long-term source of comfort. The crisis has accelerated previous trends , meaning a higher proportion of sales will continue to be digital. Next's superior online operations meant it was able to attract new customers over lockdowns too, and early signs suggest they're sticking around.
The group's also leveraging its strong online capabilities by helping other retailers boost their own digital performance. This is a lower-risk and high return area of business, which could translate into an impressive long-term source of growth.
Making the most of the online opportunity does mean capital expenditure's on the up. But it's the right move in our view. We're particularly intrigued to see what increased capacity will mean for Next's overseas markets. And because Next's online business is more mature than a retailer starting digital operations from scratch, margins are higher and expanding it shouldn't come with quite the same drag on profits.
The physical store estate is worth attention too. We can't deny the retail landscape is incredibly tough, and the structural decline in high street footfall is a problem, even for Next. We wouldn't be surprised to see the store estate shrink further in the coming years as the group grapples with changes in the industry.
Next's shops typically have shorter, and more favourable leases than peers, and are more focussed on out of town retail outlets that have been faring better. This gives the group extra flexibility.
A hugely reduced debt pile - forecast to fall by over £500m at the full year - also eases concerns over financial health, and allows Next breathing room while it navigates changes in the industry. That may come in useful as industry-wide labour shortages could disrupt the peak festive season, and the speed and accuracy with which the group executes its digital expansion plans. We should also note the smaller finance business, where lower consumer credit spending is denting interest income, is likely to be subdued for a while.
But, in general, Next looks pretty well set at present, with its high customer retention, mushrooming online sales and growth opportunities. Something of a rarity in retail.
Next key facts
- Price/earnings ratio: 15.6
- Ten year average Price/earnings ratio: 13.9
- Prospective dividend yield (next 12 months): 2.5%
All ratios are sourced from Refinitiv. Please remember yields are variable and not a reliable indicator of future income. Keep in mind key figures shouldn't be looked at on their own - it's important to understand the big picture.
Half year results (all comparisons are against pre-pandemic levels)
Full price sales performance was boosted by pent-up demand following lockdowns in spring, plus warm weather in June. The group estimates about £75m of sales were lost in the 10 week lockdown, knocking £20m off profits overall as some sales shifted online and return rates fell.
Online full price sales rose 55% to £1.4bn, with double digit growth from NEXT Brand, third party LABEL business and overseas online. Next thinks there is much less physical retail competition for its LABEL UK business. The group also saw good results from its new Total Platform, which allows other retail brands to use Next's technology, warehousing, logistics and other infrastructure, for the benefit of their own online business. Six brands are signed up to Total Platform: Childsplay Clothing, Laura Ashley, Victoria's Secret, Aubin, Reiss and GAP. Four are trading on the platform, the other two are expected to launch in the next year.
Retail sales are down 38% at £540.1m, largely because of lockdowns coupled with structural challenges on the high street. The average lease length on stores was 5 years, down from 5.5. Half of store leases will expire or break in a little over 4 years.
Stock levels are running about 12% lower than 2019, which is "far from optimal". However, sales aren't being too greatly affected - this could be because of a greater range of alternative options.
Interest income in the Finance business fell 11% to £119m, as people continue to pay off their balances faster. Net profits fell 13% to £66m.
Next discussed its outlook in great detail. It doesn't expect to attract as many new customers over the festive season this year, but believes overall customer retention trends are positive.
The group said "generally, we have not experienced difficulties in recruiting staff, particularly in our stores", but warned some deliveries may take longer to arrive as it heads into the peak Christmas period.
Cost inflation is running at about 2%, and this is expected to increase to around 2.5% next year.
Next is in the process of building a new warehouse to increase capacity in-line with the growing online business. Phase 1 is planned to be operational in October 2023 and will increase capacity by +45%. Phase 2, which extends the mechanisation within the new building, is expected to add a further +45%. In the meantime, the group's putting new measures in place to maximise capacity in the existing estate.
Summarising the challenges and opportunities ahead, the group said: "The daunting fact is this: little other than outstanding execution and constant innovation, across the entire business, will enable us to maximise the ever-changing opportunities and challenges of an increasingly online world. It is a tall order, but we are in the fortunate position of having that chance."
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