The week ahead: Marks and Spencer to face shareholders at annual meeting

MARKS & SPENCER looks set to be the latest UK blue-chip to face tough questions from shareholders as its annual meeting coincides with what analysts expect will be grim first quarter trading figures.

Budget chain Primark and online fashion firm Asos are also due to report, shining further light on Britain’s troubled retail sector.

Marks & Spencer is expected to reveal its worst quarterly trading performance for more than three years when it provides an update tomorrow.

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Retail experts are forecasting dire figures for the first quarter of its financial year, even though M&S has invested in celebrity-laden advertising campaigns featuring the likes of Gary Barlow and Dannii Minogue.

The retail giant, which operates more than 700 stores in the UK, has borne the brunt of falling high street spending in recent months as it competes with frenzied levels of promotions.

But the wettest April and June on record are expected to have added to its woes, with women’s fashion expected to have been the worst hit.

The City expects UK like-for-like sales excluding VAT to fall 3 per cent, in its worst performance since the quarter to March 2009.

Rod Whitehead, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said: “We worry that the weakness in the top line is not just the weather. Some commentators are suggesting that M&S’s womenswear range has been off-trend this summer.”

M&S bosses are also set to face tough questions over pay after shareholder body Pirc labelled bonus plans “excessive”.

Tomorrow will also see figures from Asos, which are expected to reveal that a price-cutting drive has helped it regain its UK sales momentum.

The company, which targets twentysomethings with clothes based on outfits first worn by celebrities, has seen its share price quadruple over the past three years as it rides a boom in demand for internet shopping.

But its last trading update revealed that UK sales growth slowed to just 4 per cent in the three months to the end of March, compared with 10 per cent in the previous quarter.

Numis analyst Andrew Wade expects UK sales to bounce back with an 8 per cent increase in the last quarter, helped by an initiative to cut prices on its own-label products. Sharper pricing is also expected to help booming US sales accelerate further.

Budget retailer Primark is also set to shrug off the pressures hurting the high street once again when its parent group updates the market on Thursday.

Primark – owned by Associated British Foods and which operates 233 stores in the UK and across Europe – has successfully bucked the negative trends in recent months thanks to its “value” position.

Recent falls in cotton prices are also expected to have helped ease the strain on its margins as it seeks to keep a lid on prices.

AB Foods also bolstered its food division with the £34 million acquisition of ethnic flour brand Elephant Atta from Hovis maker Premier Foods.

It will integrate the brand into its Westmill Foods business, the UK’s leading provider of ethnic food products to retailers and wholesalers.

The City expects pre-tax profits to rise 15.6 per cent to £965m for the year to September.