SUGAR RUSH: A big jump in sales of chocolate boxes through supermarkets helped Thorntons avoid a repeat of its previous year's dismal Christmas performance today.

The group said commercial sales grew strongly by 26.4 per cent to £34.7m in the 14 weeks to January 12, against a 1.3 per cent decline in like-for-like sales in its store estate, which compares favourably with the profits warning issued in the run up to the previous Christmas period.

MARGINS DOWN: JD Wetherspoon reported an 8 per cent surge in festive sales but warned rising overheads would dent profit margins as it faces higher energy bills and wage costs.

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The group, which has around 860 pubs and almost 30,000 staff, said half-year margins were expected to be around 1.1 per cent lower than its previous financial year in the face of higher tax, utilities, labour, bar and food supply costs, as well as marketing expenses.

The pub chain added its corporation tax bill was expected to hit 27.5 per cent this year.

Shares in the group dropped 2 per cent as today's margin blow overshadowed the sales cheer, with expectations for further cost pressures when this April's above-inflation alcohol duty increases come into effect.

PROFITS WARNING: French Connection has warned of more big losses after its UK sales remained in decline in the wake of softer trading in the run-up to Christmas.

The fashion chain said the 2.9 per cent fall in UK like-for-like sales for the 24 weeks to January 12 partly reflected the decision to delay the start of its winter sale by one week in an attempt to boost the value of the brand.

Having reported a half-year loss of £6.3m in September, French said it expects this figure to rise to between £7.5m and £8m for the year to the end of January.

The guidance is much worse than City forecasts, causing shares in French Connection to open more than 15 per cent lower today. Analysts at Seymour Pierce stockbrokers warned it will be another two years until the company breaks even.

POWER SUPPLY: Rolls-Royce has secured a contract worth 75 million US dollars (£47 million) to supply PetroChina with equipment and services to power the flow of natural gas through the country's West-East Pipeline Project, which is the world's longest pipeline and a key part of China's drive for cleaner energy.