M&S clothing sales don't measure up

The company was pinning its hopes on its new collection, but that hasn't had much impact. It could do worse than take inspiration from Primark.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Jan 2014

Marks & Sparks is having one of those ‘got dressed in the dark’ days. The good news is that its profits didn’t actually go down in the 26 weeks to the end of September – they rose from £280m this time last year to, er, £280.6m. The bad news is that clothing sales dropped. How could this have happened? It had Tracey Emin and Helen Mirren and everything…

Food sales were up 2.5% from last year, while overall sales rose from £4.7bn to £4.9bn. But its rag trade business forms a significant chunk of the company’s sales: unfortunately, general merchandise sales (which is mainly made up of clothing) fell 1.5% during the six months.

That’s the ninth quarter during which clothing sales have fallen, but Bolland reckons he might have sorted it this time. Last year the company hired former Debenhams and Jaeger boss Belinda Earl to launch a new fashion range. The result, unveiled in May, was well received by fashion critics, and followed up with an ad campaign featuring the heady combination of Emin and Mirren, as well as Ellie Goulding and Katie Piper, all shot by Annie Leibovitz (yep: her wot offended the Queen).

Bolland was keen to point out that the new collection was only launched three weeks before the end of the period, meaning its success or failure didn’t add (or detract) much to (or from) the results.

The trouble is this: we’ve been calling Marc Bolland ‘new chief executive Marc Bolland’ for ages, but actually he’s been in situ since May 2010 (time flies when you’re having fun). So the excuses that he’s the new boy and that Stuart Rose was a tough act to follow have all but faded. The fact is, he’s had three years to crack the clothes problem. He should have done it by now. If MT was a shareholder, it would be beginning to fidget. It's a safe bet that bidders eager to get their hands on Marks & Spencer are quietly biding their time.

He could do worse than to look to Associated British Foods, owner of the retailer fondly known by customers as ‘Primarni’. In results for the 52 weeks to mid-September, revenues rose by 9% to £13.3bn while profit before tax rose 13% to £1.09bn, largely driven by sales at Primark.

In fact, AB Foods boss George Weston called it a ‘remarkable’ year for the brand: sales at Primark rose 22%, opening 15 new stores, which bumps its total up to 257. It wants to open another 13 by Christmas.

On the Today programme this morning, John Humphrys gave Bolland a choice. ‘What do you want your clothes to be known as?’ he asked. ‘Cheap, cool or sensible?’ Predictably, Bolland went for ‘none of the above’ – but clearly, going for the ‘cheap’ option has been about as successful a strategy as it gets for Primark. At some point M&S is going to have to give itself an identity. It’s not so much jack of all trades as jack of all outfits: it’s going to have to choose whether it wants to go for old and sensible or young and cool, or old and cool – but it can’t be all three at once.

Still interested in that new collection? Here’s Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley losing her dog – and then her clothes – down a manhole. You should be more careful, love…

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