Takeover Panel orders decision by March 21.

Private equity group Apax has been set a deadline of noon March 21 to decide whether to issue a full bid for British retailer Woolworths.

In a statement issued yesterday (Feb. 22) to the London stock exchange, the U.K. Takeover Panel says Apax must commit itself to either make a formal bid or withdraw. "No extension to this deadline will be granted, except with the consent of the panel executive," it says.

Woolworths on Feb. 8 rejected an indicative proposal from Apax of 50p-55p per share, valuing the retailer at up to £789 million ($1.46 billion).

Woolworths has long been a leading player in British music retail. In 2003, the 800-plus-store chain accounted for 11.2% of album sales and 29.5% of singles sales in the United Kingdom, according to figures published by the British Phonographic Industry.