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It will take more than a few boughs of holly to brighten the retail gloom | Business

It’s Christmas! Well, nearly. Last Friday, Argos was the first retailer to broadcast a festive TV ad, signalling the start of what has traditionally been an orgy of consumption in Britain’s shops.

But behind the in-store displays of tinsel and looped selection of past Christmas hits, there isn’t much cheer for Britain’s high streets and shopping centres. Fragile consumer confidence, rising costs and increased online shopping have left shops vacant and cost tens of thousands of jobs. Familiar names such as Bathstore, Bon Marché and Debenhams have gone into administration this year.

The economy is barely growing and while Britain avoided crashing out of the EU on Halloween, Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit deal remains a big worry. These woes were only added to by the prime minister deciding to call a general election less than two weeks before Christmas.

This isn’t bad news just for retailers. Intu Properties and other shopping centre owners are feeling the strain as investors start to wonder whether their once-prized assets have a future. These companies have had to swallow falling rents as struggling retailers such as New Look and Topshop owner Arcadia demanded cuts to stay afloat. The value of their properties has fallen, putting strain on finances and scaring investors.

Argos’s 2019 Christmas advertising campaign was the first to be shown this year.

Argos’s 2019 Christmas advertising campaign was the first to be shown this year.

Intu, whose sites include Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Lakeside in Essex, will issue a third-quarter trading report on6 November. As Britain’s biggest shopping centre owner, it is the most vulnerable, and has seen a chaotic year or so following two failed takeover attempts.

The company’s results in August showed like-for-like rent income falling 7.7% to £205m in the first half of 2019, sending its loss to £856m from £506m a year before. Intu also has £4.7bn of debt, with £926m due for renewal in 2021.

Intu’s chief executive, Matthew Roberts, has said his first priority is to cut debt. The dividend has been suspended and Roberts is trying to sell assets, mainly two shopping centres in Spain. He is also diversifying into flats and hotels, and lining up more non-retail experiences. But with investors questioning the long-term survival of bricks and mortar retail, the assets will be hard to shift. And buyers will drive a hard bargain, knowing Intu is desperate for cash.

Roberts acknowledged these problems and said Intu might need to raise cash from shareholders. Faced with this prospect, investors sent the shares down 30% on results day. The shares have lost more than three-quarters of their value in the past year.

Kieran Lee, analyst at stockbroker Berenberg, said Intu was “uninvestable” in its current state despite having the best-quality venues in the sector. Retailers’ woes would increase, he said, and the company would struggle to escape a spiral of declining sentiment, falling property values and burdensome debt.

“Intu owns the best centres in the UK but its balance sheet is broken,” Lee said. “Though it has these really good assets, its debt is too high. It’s trying to sell assets but the market isn’t open for them to do so.”

There are two main routes out of this bind for Roberts, who was Intu’s finance director before becoming chief executive in April. He can try to raise £1bn or more from shareholders in an emergency rights issue, or he can sell the company.

Physical retail probably won’t die. Despite the gloom, footfall at Intu’s centres is holding up, and even Amazon is opening high street shops. Reports of interest from private equity indicate that there may be buyers out there.

With the right surgery, Intu’s centres could be enjoying ringing tills for many Christmases to come. Whether Intu will own them is another matter.

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