Martin Flanagan: M&S marks time ahead of revamp boost

'M&S seems to live in a perpetual turnaround programme,' writes Martin Flanagan. Picture: John Devlin
'M&S seems to live in a perpetual turnaround programme,' writes Martin Flanagan. Picture: John Devlin
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Not for the first time, Marks & Spencer leaves the City scratching its head on the way to react to its trading results.

The initial stock market reaction to the latest slide in annual underlying sales and profits was to mark the shares down. That was followed by the stock standing 2 per cent higher before falling back to close up just 1.5 per cent.

• READ MORE: M&S profits slump as clothing sales go into reverse

Underlying M&S profits fell 10 per cent to nearly £614 million. It is a long time (2008 and before that the late 1990s) since M&S bestrode the high street with annual profits of £1 billion.

Most disconcertingly, sales in the core clothing business plummeted just under 6 per cent in the final trading quarter, throwing off the rails the apparent false dawn of Q3 when clothing sales after a lengthy period of malaise rose 2.3 per cent.

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However – and there is often a however with the high street dowager of middle Britain – M&S pointed to the late fall of Easter this year for part of the sales damage. And it is true that spring clothing fashions are important to the group.

The company can also with justification say it is difficult to be at its trading best in the middle of a turnaround programme under chief executive Steve Rowe.

But, then again, M&S seems to live in a perpetual turnaround programme – usually focused on trying to get its clothing arm back on positive track. Witness the previous tenures of Marc Bolland, Stuart (now Lord) Rose, and Luc Vandevelde.

M&S is cutting its store space for clothing and home products, while growing its Simply Food chain by about 90 new stores. Food – even though in the pricey segment of the market occupied by the likes of Waitrose – has been M&S’s get-out-of-jail card with investors for a considerable time now.

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And so it is this time. While annual like-for-like sales in clothing and home fell 3.4 per cent, food was much more resilient, with a decline of only 0.8 per cent.

Rowe is still asking investors to take a lot on trust. Ironically, perhaps those who are keeping the faith currently have been most heartened by the news that retail star Archie Norman is coming on board as chairman at M&S at the start of September.

The former architect of the Asda turnaround is not known as having a desperately hands-off temperament.

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