Focus on Marks & Spencer update

Marks and Spencer has been struggling to revive the fortunes of its beleaguered fashion division

Marks and Spencer has been struggling to revive the fortunes of its beleaguered fashion division

First published in National News © by

Marks & Spencer's performance will be in focus today with a trading update that should shed light on whether fierce competition has dealt a further blow to its turnaround plans.

The retail bellwether has been struggling to revive the fortunes of its beleaguered fashion division with its autumn/winter collection cited as a key opportunity to make its mark.

But investors have been anxious that aggressive discounting used to lure customers into shops could have hit profit margins.

There have been mixed signals from rivals in the sector so far. The likes of House of Fraser, Next and John Lewis have emerged as Christmas high street winners, with Next now on course to see its profits overtake those of M&S for the first time.

But Debenhams and Mothercare suffered very different fortunes, with both having to issue profit warnings that sent shares tumbling.

Mothercare suffered a 9.9% plunge in UK sales that it blamed on the "highly promotional" nature of the Christmas period and lower footfall.

This was underscored by figures from the British Retail Consortium showing shop prices fell by 0.8% in December - the fastest rate in at least seven years - as retailers engaged in a fierce battle for trade.

Debenhams said its round of discounting failed to spark a late shopping surge, and it needed to stage further offers to clear stock. Finance boss Simon Herrick resigned days after the disappointing figures were announced.

At M&S, it is chief executive Marc Bolland who is likely to come under pressure if it fails to show any signs of a turnaround in its general merchandising (GM) division - including clothes and homeware - after nine successive quarters of decline.

The store rolled out a much-heralded "Mega Day" on the Saturday before Christmas, with 30% reductions off clothing lines. But shares have suffered amid fears the strategy could have hurt the retailer's bottom line.

Mr Bolland's reshuffle of key GM personnel was supposed to start delivering results by the time of the current autumn/winter collection, which has been heavily promoted with a marketing campaign featuring the likes of Helen Mirren.

The executive makeover saw a new head of the division, John Dixon, brought over from the successful food section in October 2012, while Belinda Earl, the former Jaeger and Debenhams boss, became style director the month before.

However, the three months to the end of September saw GM sales fall by 1.3% on a year earlier and some analysts expect just as bad a performance this time though others expect sales to be flat.

The food division at M&S has performed strongly amid the woes for the fashion division but even these may disappoint in the latest trading update. Credit Suisse is pencilling in a slowdown in growth from 2.5% to 1.5%.

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