Blacks Leisure is praying for rain after it revealed one of the driest spells on record had contributed to a sharp slump in sales.
Reporting half-year figures yesterday, when thermometers topped 20c, the owner of the Blacks, Millets and Free-Spirit chains said demand for waterproof clothing and footwear suffered because of the unseasonal conditions.
Like-for-like sales for the six months to August 31 were down 4.8 per cent, with the figure for the last eight weeks
11.8 per cent lower, although this reflected a strong performance last year when the sales figure was up by 15.8 per cent.
Blacks chairman David Bernstein said: "The contrast in the weather between 2005 and 2004 was very marked. Whereas in 2004 we had prolonged periods of wet weather, 2005 has seen one of the longest dry spells on record.
"While this has helped some of the product ranges, it has had a particularly detrimental effect on our key waterproof clothing and footwear offers."
His comments followed a "satisfactory improvement" in first half results, as operating profits for the six months to August 31 lifted 12 per cent to £7.2 million.
Total sales were 1.1 per cent stronger at £140 million, helped by four new Millets and seven Blacks outlets, plus strong demand for summer camping and hiking products and a recovery at its businesses FreeSpirit and O'Neill.
Blacks said it improved margins in the face of a challenging trading environment, a trend which continued into the second half.
It pointed out that it had chosen not to chase sales during the difficult trading period, with the company preferring to boost profitability.
There are 94 Blacks stores, with 273 under the Millets brand and another 46 operating as FreeSpirit outlets.
Russell Hardy, chief executive, said: "While sales of camping gear and equipment have done well, the warm summer weather and the prolonged dry spell has hurt sales of waterproofs and footwear. " While I'm not exactly praying for rain, a return to a more seasonal weather pattern would be welcome." The retail environment was still very tough.
Mr Hardy said: "If the weather returns to a more seasonal pattern like last year then I think the group will do OK. A cold winter would be even better, but if it stays warm, well life will start to get interesting." The improvement in profits owed much to an increase in gross margins - up by 390 basis points - to 55.6 per cent in the six months to August 2005, although Mr Hardy warned that it would be difficult to sustain this going into the second half.
"The weaker dollar and some discounting on our boardwear business will mean that the full year margin improvement is likely to be below 300 basis points," he said.
Shares fell 3p to 390p as analysts eased back full year profit estimates.