It's not over till the fat lady sings, but can M&S wait?

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The Independent Online

Of all the tarnished blue chips of Britannia, none can have fallen further from grace than Marks & Spencer. Only a couple of years ago, it was still considered the country's favourite retailer, making profits of £1.17bn and providing everyone, from Mrs Thatcher upwards, with its underwear. Now it is battered and bruised - losing sales, losing executives and losing credibility.

Of all the tarnished blue chips of Britannia, none can have fallen further from grace than Marks & Spencer. Only a couple of years ago, it was still considered the country's favourite retailer, making profits of £1.17bn and providing everyone, from Mrs Thatcher upwards, with its underwear. Now it is battered and bruised - losing sales, losing executives and losing credibility.

Last month its shares hit an all-time low of 170p, little more than a quarter of their price three years ago and half of the amount that entrepreneur, Philip Green, indicated he might pay in his audacious bid approach at the beginning of this year.

When Luc Vandevelde stands up and announces what promise to be truly dreadful half-year figures on Tuesday, the City will be desperate for some glimmer of hope. "It's a case of wondering where you can dare to look," said one major investor.

"Food profits are down. Clothing profits are down. Financial services are underperforming. The fashions are dull. And they think they can turn it around with adverts showing fat women in the nude."

However, while slagging off M&S appears to be turning into a national sport, the critics can hardly argue that the company has not been going though quite a dramatic change.

In the last two and a half years, the company has waved goodbye to two chief executives - Sir Richard Greenbury (who was also chairman) and Peter Salsbury - two people who were seen as possible chief executives - Keith Oates and Lord Stone of Blackheath - and seven other executive directors. It has revolutionised its buying operation - reversing a near century-old policy of buying British and bringing protests the like of which would embarrass tanker drivers. It has launched its first TV advertising campaign (the infamous "fat woman"), taken the famous St Michael label off many of its goods, started selling its sandwiches in other companies' stores, started selling non-M&S brands in its shops, opened outlet stores to get rid of old stock, closed underperforming outlets and is now planning to redesign every shop in the country. If any more sacred cows were to be slaughtered, M&S would have to go into the meat trade.

Yet there are those who are not satisfied. They worry that M&S is being taken to the cleaners by the likes of discount retailers Matalan and the revitalised Next. They want a radical solution with instant results. "You are talking about a company that has atrophied," said one rival. "And just when it needed nurture, it was beaten up by Sir Rick (Greenbury). It has been starved of inspiration. It needs new ideas."

Luc Vandevelde is unlikely to deliver a radical new formula on Tuesday, not least because he is lacking firepower. When Peter Salsbury left - many assumed he was pushed, though it seems that he went of his own accord - M&S hopes to be able to appoint a bright, new chief executive of UK retail, Roger Holmes. However, his current employer - Sir Geoff Mulcahy at Kingfisher - was rather miffed, as he was about to announce his own radical plans, splitting his company into two with Mr Holmes at the head of a DIY and homewares business. Although a replacement for Mr Holmes has been found, Sir Geoff will not release him until January.

Even when Mr Holmes arrives, there is a worry that he will not be right for the job. Though obviously bright and success at both McKinsey & Co, the management consultants of choice for the retail sector, and at Kingfisher's B&Q, he has never worked in clothes or food retailing.

Much depends on Mr Vandevelde, who knows everything about food retailing, having worked for both Kraft Foods and Promodes Carrefour, but little about clothing. With the group expected to report a sharp fall in half-year profits to about £160m and unlikely to make more than £500m a year, the City wants M&S to sort out the clothing side.

Mr Vandervelde will point to improved sales at the new format stores, changes to speed up the time taken for clothes to be made and delivered to the shops and some other tinkering around the edges. But anybody who expects dramatic changes - like selling the Brooks Brothers chain in the US or closing the poorly performing German stores - will be disappointed.

Optimists feel that M&S has turned the corner, but the upturn has yet to become apparent.

Pessimists worry that the decline cannot be reversed. Remember C&A.

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