LONDON — There’s a new chief executive officer at Marks and Spencer with an old story to tell — at least for the fourth quarter. Last week, Steve Rowe took over from Marc Bolland as head of the retail giant as sales in clothing and home continued to erode in the fourth quarter.
On Thursday, Rowe presented his first trading update as ceo: Fourth-quarter group sales were up 1.9 percent, boosted by a 4 percent gain in food sales. Sales were flat on a like-for-like basis. The clothing and home division continues to struggle, falling 1.9 percent in the three months to March 26, and 2.7 percent on an underlying basis.
Rowe, a longtime M&S manager who is responsible for building the solid food business, said the company was focusing on “getting even closer to our customers and putting them at the heart of everything we do.” He called performance in the final quarter of the year mixed.
“Although the sales decline in clothing and home was lower than last quarter, our performance remains unsatisfactory and there is still more we need to do. Turning around our clothing and home business by improving our customer offer is our number one priority,” Rowe said, adding that he planned to update the market in May about his thoughts on the business after the company issues its full-year results.
M&S said the food business continued to outperform a highly competitive market and store openings continuing to drive strong sales growth in the period. The retailer opened 80 new stores in the year, growing its market share in food to 4.3 percent. It had its biggest-ever Mother’s Day and launched 400 new lines.
The company said the clothing and home division faced “a challenging backdrop” characterized by price deflation and a flat market. The spring season launched with significantly higher product availability than last year.
M&S said it also began to reduce the proportion of clothing and home sales on promotional discount and will continue to do so as it heads into the new financial year. It is also “sharpening” its prices on a number of lines and delivering a strong gross margin improvement.
M&S, once famous for its clothing offer, has over the years fallen victim to high street giants including Zara, H&M, Primark and Next, and has struggled for years to shore up the struggling division. The company is counting on Rowe, named to the ceo post in early January, to find the solution.
The international business saw improved sales in both franchises and wholly owned stores, although the retailer said the previously guided currency pressure and challenging trading conditions are still expected to heavily impact full-year profitability.