M&S to add to retail gloom

MARKS and Spencer, the retail bellwether, is likely to add to the sense of impending doom on the High Street when it reports a sharp drop in sales later this week.

Analysts expect like-for-like sales of general merchandise – which exclude food – to have fallen by a “grisly” six per cent in the fourth quarter. Food sales are likely to have held up, however, growing by around 1 per cent at stores open for a year or more.

The drop in sales will be exacerbated by an unusually good performance in the same quarter a year ago, when M&S grew non-food sales by 9 per cent.

The late timing of Easter and Mother’s Day is also likely to be cited as a factor by management.

But bears are sure to seize on the figures, which follow a slew of bad news from retailers, as proof of an impending “Nightmare on the High Street”.

“M&S should have suffered from a mix of tougher comparatives and a more cautious consumer at the start of 2011,” analysts at Société Générale said in a note.

M&S is seen as a bellwether for the rest of the retail sector, due to its heavy footfall of 21m customers a week and the wide range of merchandise it sells.

The slide in sales at M&S comes hot on the heels of a raft of gloomy news from some of the best-known High Street names.

Last week, Dixons Retail, the owner of Currys and PC World, warned on its profits for the second time in as many months, after like-for-like sales fell by seven per cent in the 11 weeks to the end of March.

Justin King, the chief executive of J Sainsbury, also recently said sales at the supermarket had fallen significantly since Christmas.

Even Domino’s Pizza, which has been seen as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the recession, last week said first quarter sales had dropped by over 10 per cent.