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Empire Stores closes but N Brown powers ahead

There were mixed fortunes in mail order this week as Redcats UK pulled the plug on its Empire Stores arm, but rival N Brown stepped into the winners’ camp in terms of Christmas trading.

The closure of Empire Stores, which is 175 years old and the second largest mail order clothing group in the UK, will be complete by January 2009. It is likely to mean the loss of 850 jobs at the company’s offices in Bradford and Wakefield.

Redcats UK blamed the closure on the declining agency market, which has been hit by the growth of value retailers on the high street and more competition from etailers.

The company said that it would focus on developing its direct brands, including its La Redoute catalogue, following the closure.

N Brown’s like-for-likes were up 14% for the 20 weeks to January 12, boosted by a strong performance from women’s clothing, which rose by 12%.

Online sales accelerated 48% during the period and now account for 28% of the group’s total sales.

N Brown chief executive Alan White said the closure of Empire Stores further demonstrated that old-style agency catalogues had struggled to compete with newer direct operations. He added: “Market research showed there was a degree of overlap between Empire and our customers, so the closure has got to be an opportunity for us.”

Several other mail order firms reported strong Christmas sales. M and M Direct’s sales shot up 29% for the nine weeks to December 20, while Littlewoods Shop Direct said its sales rose 7% for the six weeks to January 4.

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