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99p stores to swoop for empty Focus stores

Budget retailer 99p Stores has told Insider it is looking to "seize an opportunity" by taking up empty units left by DIY chain Focus, which entered administration last week. The Northampton-based company's co-founder and commercial director Hussein Lalani said: "I see that 160 shopping centres across the country have lost their anchor tenant, and I want to be the retailer to fill those stores."

Focus entered administration last week after revealing it was about to default on its loans. Simon Allport, Tom Jack and Alan Hudson from Ernst & Young were appointed to try and find a buyer for the retailer and said they were seeking offers for the sale of the business as a going concern.

Lalani said that he hoped his company could give some former Focus employees a job if the company was to take over any of its empty units.

He said 99p Stores would expand across the country in 2011 by opening a further 12 stores as it takes full advantage of the weak commercial property market. The chain opened its 143rd store in Redditch last week and has plans to expand with openings across the country in the next 12 months.

"The weak commercial property market has helped us on several levels," said Lalani. "We've taken leases on 70 former Woolworths stores and we're finding that shopping centre landlords are actually approaching the company to take on a lease with them, rather than the other way around.

"There's definitely been a reduction in the 'snob factor' we've previously experienced, both from customers, landlords and suppliers. People want to find a bargain, and big brand names like Cadbury are now happy to be associated with the chain."
He added that the chain had experienced a change in customer demographic as the middle classes have become more accustomed to shopping at 99p Stores.

"We have altered our product range in the past few years to cater for a more middle-class customer. We've started selling products like olives, extra olive virgin oil and other more upmarket foods to appeal to a different customer base than maybe we were catering for previously."

Lalani said the company was also keen to expand into Scotland and eventually Ireland, which he hoped would open the doors to the continental European market.

"I think we can definitely become an international brand in the future", he said. "We haven't discussed how the fixed pricing would work abroad, but I think it's definitely a possibility."
He said that despite the upturn in popularity the chain had experienced during and in the aftermath of the recession, there would always be a place for single-price and budget retailers.
"We are part of the high-street map now – as the economy gets stronger, we are continuing to flex our musckles and grow. I don't think people will start buying the products we sell and other, more expensive retailers. They've found a way to save money, and I'm sure they'll continue doing so," he said.

Source : Stephanie Bartup - Insider

12 May 2011
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