Three things to expect from the M&S full-year results on Wednesday

Jessica Morris
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M&S is forecast to post its first profit rise in four years (Source: Getty)

If City analysts are anything to go by, this Wednesday could be a good one for Marks & Spencer's chief executive Marc Bolland. The troubled high street giant is forecast to post its first full-year rise in profits for four years.

M&S has invested billions of pounds trying to improve the 798-strong store portfolio, up its advertising game and quite simply get the product right. Over the years Bolland has urged patience from shareholders, telling them it was a "step by step process" that could not see change overnight.

Bolland's time is arguably up. He's been at the helm for five years now and this week will be crunch time for the former Morrison's man, who has been heaped with praise for M&S food offer, while simultaneously being roundly slammed for the clothing offer.

Despite this performance, M&S' share price has easily outperformed the FTSE during Bolland's tenure. If this week brings good news, investors could be even happier.

Here are three key things to look out for in Wednesday's results.

First profit rise in four years?

The City is forecasting pre-tax profits to have increased by four per cent to £648m in the 12 months to March, which will be its first rise in four years.

This is of course to be welcomed, but the performance needs to be viewed in context of very favourable comparatives, given the sustained period of decline.

It's also important to note the gap between M&S and its high street rival Next. Although M&S dwarves Next when it comes to revenue - it reported £10.3bn for 2014, compared with £2.23bn at Next - it's a different story when it comes to profits.

The Simon Wolfson-run clothing and homeware business posted underlying pretax profit of £695.2m - compared to £622.9m by M&S - suggesting latter still has work to do when it comes to margins, which will arguably have been eaten away by discounting and over-stocking.

M&S clothing back in fashion?

A few seasons back it was The Coat. This season it is The Skirt. But will it make a difference to M&S' bottom line?

M&S finally broke its 14-quarter decline in April, reporting marginal growth of 0.7 per cent for the general merchandise division, which includes clothing. It is this that analysts believe will stem the declines of the wider group.

"With food sales already a key and consistent contributor to the company's bottom line this change of fortune, in its general merchandise side of the business will undergo a key test when the retailer announces its full annual results," CMC Markets said.

Under style director Belinda Earl, hired with much aplomb in 2012 after stints at Debenhams, Jaeger and Aquascutum, the focus has been fully on clothing. While Earl has arguably won over the fashion press, with headlines proclaiming items had sold out within hours of going on sale, initial lines didn't appear to have been produced in enough volume to make a difference. For M&S to be showing growth in clothing - and therefore the rest of the company - Bolland's merchandisers must have ordered the right stuff in the right quantities.

Bigger payouts to investors?

Nomura is one of many City analysts to speculate that M&S could reward loyal shareholders with a £250m special dividend. "We believe some indication of potential additional returns could be on the agenda," it said.

Meanwhile, other reports have suggested it will return cash to shareholders through a share buyback, something which Next has been doing for many months.

This would represent the first share buyback since 2007 when its profits crossed the £1bn threshold.

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