Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — The numbers keep improving at Brooks Bros., but women’s wear at the conservative retailer remains tough.
Marks & Spencer, parent of the American specialty store chain, reported that Brooks Bros. continued its recovery in the first half ended Sept. 28, with operating profits of $1.7 million on a 9.9 percent rise in sales to $218.1 million. This compares with operating losses of $4 million on sales of $198.5 million in the corresponding period a year earlier.
“This is an encouraging start after a poor year last year in the first half and in the entire year before that,” said Keith Oates, Marks & Spencer’s deputy chairman. “It’s an encouraging start, bringing it back to what we wanted from Brooks Bros. when we bought it.”
But the growth came almost entirely in men’s wear. Chris Littmoden, Marks & Spencer’s director for North America, said the chain’s performance in women’s wear remains “disappointing.”
“We got it wrong and we know it; now we’ll go back and get it right,” he said. “We moved too far too fast and want to bring the look back more to the middle. Women’s wear accounts for about 10 percent of the business, and I want it to be more.”
The first-half profit at Brooks Bros. is an indication that the changes instituted by Littmoden and Joseph Gromek, who was named chief executive officer in April 1995, are having an effect.
Littmoden and Gromek’s successful initiatives include:
Developing a new, lighter-looking store design.
Improving customer service.
Boosting product availability.
Improving systems.
Placing greater focus on Brooks Bros.’ key product areas while eliminating slow sellers.
The new store design is now in some eight to 10 units and gradually will be rolled out to others over the next few years, Littmoden said. Brooks also is relocating some of its stores to sites of 10,000 to 11,000 square feet from units of up to 15,000 square feet. In these cases, sales per square foot have risen by 20 to 40 percent, he said.
Overall, Brooks Bros. has 68 stores in the U.S. and 41 outlets, plus another 58 stores in Japan. But Littmoden, while pleased with the first-half profits, said much remains to be done.
“We have a completely new set of individuals that we’re building into a team, and we’re constantly trying new things. Some have worked and some haven’t. But we’re learning,” he said.
Overall, Marks & Spencer reported a 12.1 percent increase in after-tax profits to $479.7 million (292.5 million pounds) on an 8.7 percent rise in sales of continuing operations to $5.79 billion (3.53 billion pounds) in the first half. This compares with after-tax profits of 260.9 million pounds on sales of 3.25 billion pounds in the year-ago period.
The growth was fueled by an 8.8 percent rise in apparel sales in the U.K. and continued growth in overseas markets, especially Continental Europe.
Marks & Spencer recently opened its first German store, in Cologne, and is looking for another 15 to 20 sites, Oates said. It already has stores in France, the Benelux countries and Spain.