Bottom Line: Food placates a tough audience

Elizabeth Fournier

HE keeps having to ask investors for more time to turn around M&S, so having to face more than 1,000 shareholders and do the same again cannot have been a welcome prospect for Marc Bolland.

Lucky for the floundering retail giant’s chief executive then, that his normally vocal flock seemed to have lost its voice at Wembley yesterday – just 12 questions were thrown at Bolland from the floor, less than half the number he faced last year.

Perhaps that’s because, despite yet another fall in clothing sales, yesterday’s numbers weren’t really a cause for consternation – or not yet, at least.

While doubters are focused on the make-or-break autumn womenswear range, which goes on sale later this month, the firm’s international, online and food arms have been more than making up for the slow turnaround. Online in particular has ballooned, with the introduction of a next day click-and-collect service bumping sales up by 29.9 per cent and mobile and tablet purchases up 160 per cent, leaving it well positioned to benefit from a shift to a new platform next year.

Meanwhile shares – bolstered by persistent takeover chatter that chairman Robert Swannell was quick to shoot down yesterday – are up 45 per cent in the last 12 months. It’s no wonder investors found it hard to whip themselves into a frenzy yesterday when shares are outperforming the FTSE 100 by three times, and there’s a suite full of M&S sandwiches waiting.

But while it’s clear that M&S knows who its customer is (55 per cent are over 55 years old, while 75 per cent are over 45), it’s not yet obvious whether it can give them what they want. New style director Belinda Earl can put all the sleeves she likes on M&S dresses, but until shareholders are convinced Bolland’s plan has legs, shares are unlikely to go higher.