Comment: Bolland on borrowed time as M&S slides

Terry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Terry Murden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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ACCORDING to the latest surveys, the high street is enjoying a bit of a long-awaited uplift, but Marks & Spencer is not sharing the last-minute Christmas rush.

Analysts have been expecting more disappointing sales of its womenswear and three have downgraded their full-year forecasts. Figures out early in the new year may well confirm the worst.

The chain is not exactly in a crisis, but concern is enough to have prompted it to heavily discount various product ranges with a “mega day” planned for tomorrow.

To be fair, M&S is not alone. Other chains, including Debenhams, have suffered sales slips and similar analysts’ downgrades. Many clothing chains have blamed the unseasonably warm autumn weather for the slack sales.

The problem for M&S is that it had placed so much importance on its autumn/winter womenswear range and it is likely to report a further decline in sales during the third quarter, the first full quarter to include the new range.

The pressure remains on chief executive Marc Bolland, even though his discounting policy follows a similar tactic employed by his predecessor Sir Stuart Rose. It would be no surprise to see him become one of the first high-profile casualties of 2014, though that would be harsh in a tough climate. Sadly for Bolland, investors have little room for sentiment when they leaf through the numbers. If they don’t like what they see he will pay the price.

Cable’s zero decision does not add up

THOUSANDS of workers on zero hours contracts will not be pleased with Business Secretary Vince Cable’s decision not to impose a total ban on the practice.

These arrangements have been heavily criticised for failing to provide workers with basic guarantees of work and therefore a predictable income.

While Cable justified his ruling on the grounds that zero hours contracts give employers greater flexibility, he has upset those who see them as nothing more than legalised exploitation.

In a recovering economy, there may well be a need to ensure businesses are not hampered by an over-commitment on their labour requirements, particularly in cyclical industries.

However, a mature economy should be able to provide fundamental working rights for all employees that includes a commitment to a minimum number of hours and ensures some of the worst practices are outlawed.

For instance, according to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 40 per cent of workers on zero hours contracts had been informed only shortly before starting work that a shift had been cancelled, with a further 6 per cent having been told their shift was cancelled just as it was about to start. There are calls for compensation to be made available in such cases.

There is also concern that only a third of zero hours contract workers are eligible for statutory redundancy pay even though many of them are classed as employees by the firms they work for.

Cable has at least indicated that he might ban “exclusivity clauses” which stop employees working for another firm. These arrangements can be difficult to justify in many circumstances but in zero hours contracts they are a needless added burden.

Twitter: @TerryMurden1