WH Smith Christmas sales fall offset by margin gain

LONDON Wed Jan 22, 2014 2:31am EST

LONDON Jan 22 (Reuters) - British books, newspaper and stationery retailer WH Smith said it was confident of making further progress in 2014 as it repeated its long established pattern of reporting declining sales accompanied by profit margin gains.

The 222-year-old firm said on Wednesday both its total sales and sales at stores open over a year fell 4 percent in the 20 weeks to Jan. 18, while gross margin improved and costs were tightly controlled.

Despite signs the British economy is improving, household incomes have stayed under pressure as inflation outstrips average pay rises, and retailers' Christmas trading updates have shown mixed results.

Like-for-like sales at WH Smith's travel division, made up of outlets at airports, railway stations, motorway service stations, hospitals and workplaces, fell 1 percent.

That outcome reflected a recent improvement in sales trends, particularly in airport traffic.

Like-for-like sales were down 6 percent at the firm's high street division, in line with internal expectations.

"Looking ahead, we continue to plan cautiously and manage the business tightly while investing in new opportunities for future growth," said Chief Executive Stephen Clarke.

"We are confident in making further progress in the year."

Shares in WH Smith, up 57 percent over the last year, closed Tuesday at 1,016 pence, valuing the business at 1.23 billion pounds ($2.03 billion).

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