Bottom Line: Dixon is Bolland’s secret weapon

Elizabeth Fournier

MARC Bolland is a lucky man. Despite three years in the job and seven quarters of falling clothing sales already behind him, he still seems to have investors’ confidence.

Yesterday he managed to dodge the latest round of criticism by distracting critics with an impressive rise in food sales, which rose four per cent on a like-for-like basis, just offsetting a similar fall in clothing and homewares.

But despite Bolland’s assurances that we’ll see a turnaround in M&S’s non-food sales by the autumn, the difference between its two departments is starting to look much too stark.

A measure of high street health

Hardly a week goes by without M&S’s food shelves being lined with innovative products – whether they’re seasonal buys or a new range of high-end ready meals. M&S food is convenient, inventive, and not afraid to adapt fast to track foodie trends or diet fads.

Contrast that with the same old comfortable shoes and sensible vests you find on the clothing floors and it’s not hard to see why customers are only going in for one thing.

Bolland has made much of the new team he’s brought in to vamp up womenswear – including style director and ex-Debenhams boss Belinda Earl – but his real secret weapon has more recently been found lurking among the freezer cabinets.

John Dixon, who was made general head of merchandising last October, is widely credited with turning round the firm’s food business since he was made its director in 2008. He’s understandably popular, and Bolland seems willing to pin the turnaround on Dixon’s ability to apply his winning formula to clothing’s failing fortunes.

Investors seem to have faith for now, but if Dixon’s overhaul falls flat then Bolland will need more than charm to get him through the winter.