M&S struggles with clothing as total sales rise

Kasmira Jefford
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MARKS & SPENCER boss Marc Bolland yesterday conceded that another fall in clothing sales was “unsatisfactory” but insisted the group had “a very clear plan” for turning sales around.

Speaking at the company’s annual meeting at Wembley Stadium, Bolland faced shareholders after admitting that underlying general merchandise sales had fallen for an eighth consecutive quarter in the three months to 29 June – down 1.6 per cent.

The Dutchman, who took over as chief executive in 2010, said he was “unhappy” with the performance of clothing, blaming the poor April weather and “intense” promotional activity in the market.

But he pointed out that three out of the four parts of the business were successful. Food, which accounts for over half of sales, grew by 1.6 per cent on a like-for-like basis, while international and online sales rose by 8.7 and 29.9 per cent respectively.

The high street stalwart is pinning its hopes on a new strategy based on more stylish and higher-quality clothing, after a shake-up of its general merchandise team last year, bringing in former Jaeger boss Belinda Earl and appointing John Dixon, previously head of food, to lead the division.

M&S chairman Robert Swannell told investors that customers had “clearly” said that it needed to reassert its leading position on quality in clothing.

As a result there will be 80 per cent more dresses with sleeves, bolder colours, “more noble yarns” and more tailored trousers, he said.

The long-awaited autumn/winter range, which has so far been well received by the fashion world, will go on sale in stores later this month.

Swannell also pleaded for investors to give management more time, saying: “We are not here for a popularity contest, we are here to make the right decisions for the long-term”.

Responding to one shareholder’s criticism of Bolland’s pay, Swannell said “every pound of the bonus” to Bolland and the team was “wholly justified”. Some 4.5 per cent voted against Bolland’s re-election, while 8.06 per cent voted against the pay report.