M&S Christmas trading blighted as clothes sales continue to fall

No belated Christmas cheer for Marks and Spencer - the group's just reported that like-for-like sales in the 13 weeks to 28 December were down 2.1 per cent.

The quarter, it said this morning, was a challenging one, and performance was below expectations. Sales in general merchandise, which includes clothes, fell for the tenth quarter in a row. The retailer said, however, that womenswear is seeing early signs of recovery.

When it comes to outlook, M&S says it remains cautious. From this morning's statement:

We now expect the full year gross margin in Food to be slightly ahead of the previous guidance of up 50 to 60bps.

As a result of the investment in promotional activity, we now expect General Merchandise gross margin to be down 0.3 to 0.5 percentage points.

This will result in the full year UK gross margin being broadly level on last year. All other guidance remains unchanged.

Results were hampered by what pressured chief executive Marc Bolland (pictured) termed an "exceptionally unseasonal October", with "higher than ever" levels of discounting and the fall in general merchandise sales.

In the eight-week run-up to Christmas, the retailer saw 3.2 per cent total sales growth, avoiding a formal profit warning, with food performing solidly: like-for-like sales were up 1.6 per cent, 4.1 per cent in the quarter and 6.1 per cent over Christmas and New Year.

Bolland commented:

Our Food business had an excellent quarter... including our biggest day ever in food of £64m on the 23rd December.

And M&S's online offering saw strong improvement in the period, reflecting again the importance of honed click strategy for retailers, with sales up 23 per cent.