Despite several campaigns designed to reverse the fortunes of its fashion goods, including a best-selling underwear range modelled by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, its sales in the general merchandise sector, which includes clothing, took a 3.8 per cent hit during the first three months of the year.
M&S still retains an 11 per cent share of the womenswear market, and has recently recruited Janie Schaffer, of Victoria’s Secret, and the former Debenhams and Jaeger boss Belinda Earl in an attempt to turn its fortunes around.
But its clothing ranges are struggling to compete with other high-street chains, including Zara and H&M, both of which posted increased sales in the first two months of this year.
M&S was also criticised over its Real Women campaign, which featured models from sizes eight to 16. Customers complained the models were still slimmer than the average woman, and were no more representative than the chain’s earlier celebrity models, Twiggy and Myleene Klass.
The coldest March since 1962 also dented demand for summer clothing and shoes, according to the British Retail Consortium.
Chief executive Marc Bolland, speaking as M&S announced its latest results, said the brand had made progress despite difficult trading conditions and was working hard on improving the performance of general merchandise.
He has hired Ms Earl and John Dixon, former boss of M&S food, to lead a new general merchandise management team, which will present its first clothing collection on 14 May.
Mr Bolland said: “Customers are responding well to better editing of our spring/summer product ranges, particularly our recent ‘Perfectly’ campaign.”
But shoppers on the streets of Edinburgh yesterday said M&S was failing to cater for a specific market, and they complained that its dated designs were forcing them to shop elsewhere for more fashionable clothing.
Isla Maclennan, 28, from Linlithgow, said: “I would probably buy work clothes there; I probably wouldn’t buy everyday clothes. The patterns aren’t up to the minute, they’re a bit dated.”
Flora Baillie, 22, from Edinburgh, said: “I don’t really know who they’re aiming for. I think they’re quite good for work clothes, but for young people, everything is just a bit frumpy.”
Karen Turland, 46, from Newcastle, said: “I think they are trying to do too much, and they are failing. They just need to bring someone in who’s a bit more fashionable, and they need to look more at trends. They tend to go more for classic styles.”
Despite poor clothing sales, the retailer’s food sales rose by 4 per cent, aided by bumper sales over the Easter week.
The company sold more than 600,000 packs of Belgian chocolate mini hot cross buns, and has avoided being caught up in the horsemeat scandal.
Mr Bolland said: “We delivered an excellent result in food, with performance well ahead of the market, as customers continued to trust us for provenance and quality.”
Food is increasingly becoming M&S’s most lucrative service, and now accounts for 55 per cent of M&S business.
The company’s sales increased overall by 0.6 per cent, a better performance than retail analysts had expected, and shares rose by 3.2 per cent.
Belinda Earl: From teenage shopaholic to queen of retail
SHE may be a multi-millionaire now, but Belinda Earl could not be accused of being one of those managers who is out of touch with the workforce.
Her career as “queen of retail” had its beginnings far from the boardroom when, as a 16-year-old fashion addict, she took a Saturday job in her local Debenhams.
She rose to become the store’s chief executive, the youngest person to run a major British retailer, and is credited with coming up with the Designers at Debenhams brand.
When the chain was sold, the rest of the high street came calling at her door. She was wooed to Jaeger with a remit to revitalise the collection.
Within a couple of years she had succeeded. She left the brand last March, citing health reasons, but a few months later was tempted back by M&S chief executive, Marc Bolland, who offered her a part-time role as style director.
Her job description: stop the rot.