The Blacks Leisure group includes the Millets chain. Photo: Jim Linwood CC-BY-2.0

The Blacks Leisure group includes the Millets chain. Photo: Jim Linwood [CC-2.0]

Struggling High Street outdoor retailers Blacks Leisure has managed to reduce its losses but warned trading conditions remain difficult.

Chief executive Neil Gillis is stepping down from the group, which trades under the Blacks and Millets brands, and Julia Reynolds, currently head of lingerie group, will take over the position in the late summer.

Pre-tax losses at the retail group were reduced from £43m to £5.3m in the year ended February 2011, but like-for-like sales dropped by 6.1 per cent.

Under its restructuring plan, Blacks closed 88 of its stores and has subsequently opened 13 new ones. In today’s statement, Gillis said “The store estate had been significantly underinvested over a number of years and many of the stores were old sites which lacked the necessary space to retail our full range effectively.

“For the first two years of the turnaround, the group had to withstand the rapid openings of brand new and larger stores by our competitors, often located close or even adjacent to our own underinvested sites, without being able to respond with capital investment of our own.”

One of these competitors is expanding retail group GO Outdoors, which was touted by some as a potential suitor for Blacks Leisure in an abortive attempt to find a buyer for the group last year.

Blacks chairman David Bernstein said:  “This has been another difficult year for both the group and the UK retail sector generally, with consumer confidence still continuing to be fragile.

“Despite this, action taken by the Group has resulted in the delivery of a much reduced loss for the year.

“I am delighted to announce that Julia Reynolds has accepted our offer to join Blacks Leisure as chief executive towards the end of the summer.

“Julia is a very experienced buyer and retailer who will join us from where, as CEO, she drove a period of significant growth and improvement in results. Prior to that, Julia was category director at Tesco where she was responsible for the introduction and subsequent success of the Florence & Fred clothing range.”

The harsh winter at the end of 2010 helped Blacks’ sales, which grew 10 per cent on the previous winter’s, but the company warned consumer spending in early 2011 remains weak.

Despite this, outgoing chief executive Neil Gillis was upbeat, saying: “Blacks Leisure now has a more focused estate of stores, a significantly reduced overhead base and a proven new store format which has been successfully rolled out this year.

“The business is now well placed to move from turnaround to recovery with a focus on outstanding retailing to restore it to a leadership position within outdoor retail.”

Blacks said the 13 new and rebranded stores are already making a positive overall contribution to the group and are generally trading ahead of expectations and together now account for around 10 per cent of total revenues.

It said: “These stores are principally larger units, with the trading space to offer our ranges more effectively, and which are benefitting from the capital investment that has been made in ensuring these stores are fitted out to a standard which is appropriate for our brand propositions.”

Internet sales accounted for 4.8 per cent of revenue, an increase from 2.7 per cent the previous year.

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