A respectable Christmas for Marks & Spencer, which saw like-for-like sales rise 0.8% during the 13 weeks to Boxing Day. OK, so this was slightly lower than analysts expected, which hammered the embattled retailer's share price this morning. But after two whole years of falling sales, outgoing boss Sir Stuart Rose probably isn't complaining too much. At least he can now hand over to Marc Bolland - who joins as CEO later this year - safe in the knowledge that M&S is technically heading in the right direction...
Today's figures show that both parts of M&S's business did better than last year (though admittedly that's not saying much). The more resilient general merchandise division was up 1.2%, as shoppers rushed to snap up easily-returnable Christmas presents. And even the ailing food department is back in positive territory: although sales only inched up 0.4%, the two weeks leading up to Christmas were apparently its best ever, including a single-day record on December 23 (which we can well believe, having had the misfortune to visit a Simply Food that day and witness the chaos). Apparently it shifted no fewer than 36m mince pies and 1m bottles of champagne in the run-up to Christmas.
So at least Rose had a reasonably positive story to tell in what may be his final results statement. But it wasn't enough to please the City: the lower-than-expected sales growth was seen as pretty limp, particularly given how bad the previous year was. But Rose was at pains to point out that last year's results were boosted by two days of massive discounting - this may have helped to prop up the sales figure (and was probably the best way to stop more customers deserting), but it hammered profit margins. This time round he didn't have to resort to that.
After yesterday's impressive figures from John Lewis and Next, the M&S results provide further proof that the recession didn't stop people spending last year - presumably because the various stimulus measures have put more money in our pockets. Unfortunately, as Rose also admitted today, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's all downhill from here. With this month's rise in VAT and some tax hikes imminent, he's expecting 2010 to be a pretty tough year all round. 'We know we have got some medicine coming', he told the Times today.
M&S still hasn't confirmed a start date for Bolland, who's apparently still arguing the toss with Morrisons - 'late spring' now appears to be Rose's best guess. But one thing's for sure: despite this return to (lacklustre) growth, he's still going to have a big job on his hands to return M&S to its former glory.
In today's bulletin:
Rose back in the pink as M&S enjoys solid Christmas
Buffett batters Kraft's Cadbury offer
You can't a-fjord not to pay, Britain tells Iceland
Snowy weather piles on the winter blues
A Traveller's Tale: Looking back on the world in 2009