* First-half pretax profit jumps 14.9 pct to 8.5 mln stg
* Sales rise 4.9 pct to 144 mln stg
* Comparable sales in first 5 weeks of second half up 8 pct
* Shares rise as much as 11 pct; among top pct gainers (Adds CFO, analyst comments; updates share movement)
By Roshni Menon
Sept 5 Homeware retailer Laura Ashley Holdings Plc, known for its feminine and floral designs, reported a nearly 15 percent rise in first-half pretax profit and signalled a strong start to second-half comparable store sales.
Laura Ashley's stock rose as much as 11 percent, making it one of the top percentage gainers on the London Stock Exchange on Friday.
The company said like-for-like sales rose 8 percent in the five weeks to Aug. 30, a sharp pickup from the 1.2 percent rise in retail life-for-like sales in the first half of the year.
"We've launched our new-season home furnishing range ... particularly on the decorating space, and that's critical to our success in the second half. And the acceptance so far has been good," Chief Financial Officer Sean Anglim told Reuters.
Anglim added that the furniture business, which accounts for 30 percent of UK retail sales and performed poorly in the first half, had shown a strong turnaround in the second half.
"As we've entered into the Autumn/Winter season, we've seen a really large pickup in that (furniture) category for us. Our overall business like-for-like is up 8 percent, so it's kind of consistent with that level."
Strong online sales of homeware products in the UK and growth in its international operations, helped the company report a pretax profit of 8.5 million pounds ($13.9 million) in the 26 weeks to July 26.
Total group sales rose 4.9 percent to 144 million pounds during the period.
"The interim results were better than our expectations, while the trading update for the latest six weeks in H2 is very encouraging," Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Freddie George said in a note, adding that the company was tracking ahead of his full-year profit expectations.
CFO Anglim said the company was keen to expand its international operations in South America, China and Indonesia.
Franchise and licensing revenue grew by 13.6 percent in its overseas business, with franchised stores increasing to 296 in 32 countries at the end of the first half.
Mail order and online revenue rose 6.1 percent during the period, with homewares accounting for 95 percent of online sales.
Shares in the company were trading up 8.9 percent at 27.50 pence at 0940 GMT. ($1 = 0.6127 British Pounds) (Additional reporting by Aastha Agnihotri in Bangalore; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier)