Food saves M&S as clothing sales slip again

Marks & Spencer has blamed “intense” promotional activity by rivals for another drop in clothing sales in the company’s fourth quarter amid warnings the retailer risks becoming a “mid-market monolith” that is losing share to rivals such as Next and Debenhams that offer more targeted propositions.

MandS lingerie ad
Ads starring model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have not lifted clothing sales.

The retailer says general merchandise, which includes clothing and homeware, sales fell 2.2 per cent in the 13 weeks to 30 March. The dip follows a 3.8 per cent fall over Christmas.

A 6.3 per cent increase in food sales offset the poor performance elsewhere, however, boosting total sales by 2.6 per cent in the period.

The retailer set out a long term plan to improve the perception and sharpen the positioning of clothing sub-brands such as Autograph, Per Una and Indigo last year, hiring former Debenhams and Aquascutum boss Belinda Earl in September as style director.

In a statement, M&S chief executive Marc Bolland insists the changes will pay off and that customers have reacted positively to its recent “perfectly” spring/summer fashion campaign. “We are working hard on improving our performance in general merchandise and, despite difficult trading conditions, we made progress in our operational execution,” he adds.

A refusal to slash prices as “promotional activity in the marketplace intensified in March” was cited as a reason for the sales dip in the quarter.

Multi-channel, which under the stewardship of Laura Wade-Gery has become a big focus for M&S, continued to improve, with sales increasing 22.5 per cent in its fourth quarter. Mobile sales, it adds, increased 70 per cent year on year.

John Mercer, senior retail analyst at Mintel says multi-channel is not a “panacea” to improved performance and the retailer needs to redouble efforts on improving the quality of its fashion ranges if clothing sales are to grow again.

“A key plank of Marc Bolland’s revival strategy for M&S is to excel as a multichannel retailer. But multichannel is no panacea – especially if your product isn’t right. We think M&S needs a more wide-ranging overhaul that tackles short-term product issues as well as the weakness of its position as mid-market monolith in an age of more targeted propositions,” he adds.

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