The A.S. Adventure Group has firmed up its position as the largest outdoor retail company in Europe as it lifted its sales by 15.5 percent to €335.5 million last year, with comparable sales up by 8 percent in 149 stores across five European countries.

Owned by Lion Capital, the A.S. Adventure Group comprises Bever in the Netherlands and Cotswold Outdoor in the U.K., as well as A.S. Adventure in Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The group's turnover was nearly flat in 2011 but it otherwise expanded consistently over the last five years, with multiple store openings as well as constant improvements in its sell-through and operations.

The expansion has been most remarkable in the U.K., where Cotswold's sales jumped by 22 percent to the equivalent of €127.5 million last year, with a few percentage points of the increase added by exchange rate changes. The retailer opened three stores in the country last year, but it still fared well in comparable terms.

Frederic Hufkens, chief executive of the A.S. Adventure Group, said that Cotswold was reaping the rewards of consistent investments in its U.K. stores and steady partnerships with leading outdoor brands. The same analysis has come up in unrelated discussions with several suppliers, who lauded Cotswold for its reliable approach and its steadfast commitment to its partners.

Hufkens has long been warning about oversupply in the U.K. market. Cotswold itself opened about 40 stores in the last five years, more than doubling its network to 67 stores. The situation has led to aggressive pricing, aggravated by tight consumer spending in the U.K. But Cotswold has persistently stayed away from the thick of the battle, instead investing in the refurbishment of its stores and training of its staff, to drive sell-through and offer an enticing alternative for leading brands.

Cotswold may also have benefited last year from the multiple store closures at Blacks Leisure. Hufkens said the takeover of Blacks by the JD Sports Fashion group could stabilize the entire market – although in the short term, it meant that Cotswold's head buyer switched to Blacks.

Meanwhile, the A.S. Adventure banner lifted its sales to €147 million for the year. This was chiefly due to a sales rise of 11 percent in Belgium, where the sports and outdoor market has been equally tense. The group opened one store in Belgium and Luxembourg during the year to form a network of 41 stores, and several others were only open for a few months in 2011, but A.S. Adventure's Belgian sales still climbed by more than 5 percent in comparable terms.

There also, the A.S. Adventure banner probably benefited from the closure of several independent stores, but it also attracted consumers by continuing to invest in its stores and sometimes becoming more sharply focused on specialist outdoor products.

While some of the largest A.S. Adventure stores with surfaces of up to 3,000 square meters have a sizable offering of casual products, the company also has 12 stores without any fashion ranges ? particularly in city centers where it would compete more directly with fashion retailers.

The turnover of the A.S. Adventure chain more than doubled in France last year, but this is due to the fact that the company opened its second store in the country last year, in Metz. On a comparable basis, Hufkens said that the performance of the store was satisfactory, and it would be reviewed in more detail in the coming months to decide on any further French openings.

The A.S. Adventure chain also managed to increase its turnover by 9 percent last year to nearly €61 million in the Netherlands, one of the European countries most affected by the uncertainty of consumers. Although full-year figures have yet to be released, informal estimates are that the country's sports retailers saw their sales decline at an average high-single-digit rate last year, with the worst figures coming from retailers with more casual ranges.

The chain ended the year with 39 stores, after a store opening in Utrecht and the enlargement and refurbishment of several other stores. Here again, the closure of independents contributed to the expansion of Bever, as well as the recovery from a very poor winter season in 2011. While the weather was not outstanding last year, it returned to more seasonal conditions. Two to three more Bever stores are to open in the Netherlands this year.

The A.S. Adventure Group's investments in stores have added up to €85 million in the last five years, for openings as well as constant upgrading. Hufkens said that the group had recruited nearly 1,000 people over the period.

The financial commitment continued at a time when the group's profit margin has been under pressure, not least due to inflation in Belgium. Due to the monthly indexation of wages on inflation in the country, Hufkens said that wages increased by about 10 percent in two and a half years. The increase in prices of energy and other utilities has also been impactful, as well as the hike in taxes on rental costs in the U.K.

Online sales have been a target for continued investment for the group. They are already well established in the U.K., but catching up in the Netherlands and only limited in Belgium, partly due to the country's small size and high retail density. Online sales made up about 5 percent of the entire group's turnover last year.