Fashion chain Next unveiled a 9pc rise in profits today but admitted trading in recent weeks had been "quiet".

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The group, which has 541 stores, said current demand reinforced its cautious approach as it budgets for stores to take moderately less than the previous year.

Sales in its retail estate were flat at £2.19bn in the year to January but with its online Directory business increasing revenues by 9.5pc to £1.2bn the blue-chip company's profits rose to £621.6m.

Chairman John Barton said the group performed well in difficult conditions. However, he added: "We anticipate another challenging year ahead, with little if any growth in the UK retail economy."

Sales in the current financial year are at the bottom of its target range, although it hopes this situation will improve as temperatures return to normal.

It is targeting profits of between £615m and £665m for this year, helped by stability in supply chain costs.

However, the company warned of potential price rises next year if the pound remains at its current depressed rate against the US dollar.

Shares were 1pc higher following the update, which came on the day that Next opened its latest store at the new £350m Trinity Leeds shopping centre.

It added ten new stores last year, including five Home shops, and said there were further opportunities to profitably increase UK selling space.

However, it said it remained frustrated by planning delays as it attempts to transform the quality of construction associated with out-of-town retail.

The company said: "In our dealing with local councils it is noticeable that some are much more pro-growth and pro-jobs than others.

"Many local councils are enthusiastic and efficient; but a few remain an unhealthy mix of Luddite intransigence and incompetence.

"Going forward, in areas where councils traditionally have got away with just saying "no", we will be more active in harnessing the law and the full weight of public opinion to campaign for growth."

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