Can Marc Bolland get M&S sparkle back?

Half-year figures are likely to show a drop in sales and womenswear is in the doldrums. The pressure is building on the retailer's chief
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The Independent Online

When Marc Bolland arrived at Marks & Spencer in the spring of 2010, the City thought the Dutchman was just the person to put the high street's most famous name back in fashion.

For all the talk of selling more upmarket food and expanding online, the smooth talker who once marketed Heineken lager to the world knew he had one primary challenge – to rediscover what British women want.

M&S, which once dressed the nation, was struggling to cope with cheaper competition and faster fashion from retailers such as Primark and Topshop.

Fast forward three and a half years, to next week's crucial trading figures, and little has changed.

On Tuesday, Mr Bolland will preside over half-year results in which general merchandise sales, which include womenswear, are expected to have fallen again. It marks the ninth successive quarter of declines. Total pre-tax profits are also expected to have dropped.

What has gone wrong for Mr Bolland – and is he still the man to fix M&S? Analysts say the retailer's problems are deep seated.

Maureen Hinton from researchers Verdict explains: "M&S's market share has been declining since the late 1990s and its core customers – women – no longer regard it as the primary destination for clothes shopping."

In 1997 M&S had 16 per cent of the womenswear market, falling to 12.9 per cent in 2003; last year it had just 11.2 per cent, according to Verdict.

M&S is squeezed by discount rivals and supermarkets at one end, and the higher quality now offered by department stores such as John Lewis and Debenhams at the other.

However, the autumn/winter collection, shown to the press in the summer, and boosted by model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and actress Helena Bonham Carter received glowing reviews; it was thought the company had turned a corner, but other problems continue to get in the way.

Neil Saunders, the chief executive of analysts Conlumino, explained: "The new collection has been better received than in the past and sales appear to have improved; however you can have the best clothes, but it doesn't matter if they are not stocked in sufficient numbers, presented well in stores and have a good supply chain behind them."

And here is where M&S has suffered. A new warehouse in Castle Donington struggled to run smoothly and several hundred of the best-selling pink winter coats were sent back to the supplier because they were faulty.

Customers also complained that stores did not have the full range available and were left frustrated when sent to the website to place an order, only to find as much as 75 per cent of the collection had sold out or was not available in all sizes.

At the same time, Mr Bolland's tenure has been marked by a head office overhaul that saw the well-respected Kate Bostock leave as head of general merchandise, to be replaced by head of food John Dixon; Belinda Earl, former Debenhams chief, was brought in as style director and Knickerbox founder Janine Schaffer as lingerie boss, although she quit after six months.

Although M&S decided to spend about £300m on higher-quality fabrics and reduce its range by 10 per cent, some have suggested this was too little too late.

There are some genuine successes Mr Bolland can be proud of – the 20-year-old computer systems are finally being replaced, and the 110 warehouses dotted across the country are being closed, leaving three central distribution hubs to make moving the clothes around the country easier, while the international side is quietly performing well.

Online is still struggling, but a new website is set to launch next year, and the biggest success – food – continues to go from strength to strength, as Mr Bolland and his cohorts pointed out in a three-hour presentation last week. But it still might not be enough.

"For all the good that is happening elsewhere in the company, the share price always moves on the back of general merchandising, and we expect that to be the same next week," said one top 10 shareholder, explaining the pressure the company is under.

The horsemeat scandal allowed M&S to show off its impeccable supply chain. It has since revealed plans to open 150 food-only stores over the next three years, despite having almost no online grocery offering. Indeed, Mr Bolland's refusal to entertain the idea of offering an online grocery service – something he did at Morrisons to the supermarket's detriment – has led to criticism from some quarters.

Shore Capital's Clive Black said: "Management is possibly overly sensitive to the understandable question as to why it is not considering online grocery, bordering on the intolerant."

But while food may be a roaring success, the spectre of womenswear continues to rear its head. Mr Bolland had no experience in fashion before his appointment and perhaps struggles to ignore the inevitable scrutiny that comes with leading M&S. A board member told The Independent: "Before you join M&S, they tell you that you will face the most enormous scrutiny, but until you get here you don't realise just how intense it truly is."

Some investors have suggested that Mr Bolland sometimes lets the criticism get to him. One recommended he should stop reading the newspapers and trust his own abilities.

The problem is, the numbers speak for themselves. The chances are the Dutchman's abilities will be called into question again next week.