MT’s long been a fan of Marks & Spencer’s practical, understated menswear, but it seems Britain’s most iconic retailer’s been struggling to get fashion-conscious women through the door. Before today its clothing and homewares sales were falling for 14 quarters, a trend that’s dogged its reputation despite rising food sales.
But today there are signs of life. Like-for-like sales in that struggling category are up 0.7% in the three months to 28 March, compared to a 5.8% fall in the previous quarter. That’s partly thanks to a 28% leap in its online sales, and because of a low comparable from last year. But M&S insisted it was also because it was becoming fashionable again.
‘We have been bang on trend,’ chief executive Marc Bolland said, rather like an awkward granddad trying to get down with the kids. Today’s figures must come as a relief for the Dutchman, whose future has been in doubt after clothing sales failed to pick up.
‘0.6% like-for-like increase in clothing sales over the quarter will hardly set pulses racing, but as evidence that the brand's core business has ceased misfiring this modest number is worth its weight in gold for Marc Bolland,’ said Paul Thomas, an analyst at retail consultancy Retail Remedy.
‘He still has a mountain to climb. Look beyond the flagship locations and many M&S stores are still a mess of baffling sub-brands. The relaunched website fails to inspire, and the brand's ill-starred new distribution centre is still suffering teething problems. However Bolland's cost-cutting and investment plans are showing signs of bearing fruit.’
M&S said sales were boosted by positive press coverage, including of its ‘iconic’ suede skirt (pictured), which has been seen on the likes of Alexa Chung and been dubbed ‘this seasons’s cult item’ by The Guardian’s fashion hacks. It’s not even on sale yet, but the opinion-dividing garment is apparently stoking interest in M&S’s spring and summer collections.
Investors were overjoyed. M&S shares jumped more than 6% to 564p, their highest level in almost seven years. But only time will tell whether this is a return to form for M&S or a positive blip against a generally negative trend.