Coronavirus: Mr Kipling-maker doing exceedingly well as retail navigates crisis

The company behind Mr Kipling and Bisto has revealed a surge in sales as the wider retail sector battles the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Premier Foods, which also counts Batchelors and Ambrosia in its stable of brands, said high demand for cupboard fillers helped its UK retail sales rise 15% during March in the run-up to, and start of, the restrictions on movement aimed at limiting the strain from coronavirus on the NHS.

The company said its manufacturing facilities were working at “maximum capacity” to meet high demand and it was handing factory workers an extra two days of annual leave and a £250 cash bonus as a token of thanks.

Its trading statement said: “Volumes have started to reduce from the exceptional levels seen in March, although are still expected to continue to be higher than average patterns of demand.

“This reflects more meals being eaten at home than usual due to recent measures set out by the government and hence increased demand for the group’s product ranges.”

As a result of the high demand, Premier said it expected annual trading profit to be at the top end of market expectations.

It separately said it had agreed a segregated merger of its pensions schemes that will save it £4m annually and provide “greater funding certainty” for its pension schemes members.

Its shares soared by a quarter on the news when trading began on Monday.

The grocery sector is expected to be among those best able to weather the storm facing the retail industry – with hundreds of thousands of staff currently furloughed as high streets remain largely closed down.

The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) latest measure of footfall, which monitors visits to shops, showed an 83% decline in the first two weeks after non-essential outlets were shut.

The monitor, produced with ShopperTrak, recorded a 45% decline in March as a whole.

Shopping centres were hardest hit, according to the data.

Separate figures from the BRC last week noted the worst ever rate of decline for retail sales last month.

Mecca bingo owner Rank Group said on Monday that 7,000 of its 7,600 staff were currently furloughed.

It said it was on track to meet its banking covenants for the financial year to the end of June – even if all its outlets remained closed through the period.

DFS, the furniture firm, said it was in advanced talks over an additional debt facility of £60m-£70m with its existing lending banks.

While stores are closed, it reported a 20% rise in online gross sales over the period from 25 March to 17 April.

It said that meant its approximate order books had grown by £7m to £192m – adding that it was examining ways to restart deliveries of big items in a safe manner.

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