Marks & Spencer sales better than feared

Kasmira Jefford
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MARKS & Spencer this morning reported a better-than-expected rise in fourth quarter sales after a strong performance from its food business helped to offset a seventh consecutive quarterly fall in clothing sales.

The retailer said like-for-like general merchandise sales, which include clothing and homewares, fell 3.8 per cent in the 13 weeks to 30 March – better than the market had feared.

Analysts had forecast a fall of four to six per cent, after a disappointing performance in the previous Christmas quarter.

Chief executive Marc Bolland said the group held back on discounting for most of the quarter but tough trading conditions in March and increased promotional activity from rivals had forced the group to step up its offers.

“Particularly in that last month of March the promotional pressure in the market became so strong – it was 25 per cent up in the number of promotions for that period – that means we had to respond,” he said.

Bolland has been under pressure from investors to revive M&S’s lacklustre performance in clothing and last year shook up the management team, bringing in former Debenhams and Jaeger boss Belinda Earl to rejuvenate its womenswear range.

Finance director Alan Stewart yesterday said: “What we are seeing and hearing directly from shareholders is that they are supportive of our strategy and that they recognise it is going to take time.”

Overall, UK sales at stores open more than a year rose 0.6 per cent in the 13 weeks to 30 March.

UK food sales were four per cent higher than a year ago and also up from 0.3 per cent in the last quarter thanks to Easter falling a month earlier this year.

Sales rose 14 per cent year-on-year over the Easter weekend, with products such as lamb joints, hot cross buns and chocolate eggs all selling well.