Clothing sales battle is set to intensify

BRITAIN'S clothing market is on the verge of a major shakeup as competition in the high street intensifies, a new survey claims today.

The study by Verdict, the retail consultants, says retailers in the saturated middle market will find the going increasingly tough as greater competition makes sales growth hard to achieve. But it reckons that Marks & Spencer, one of the biggest casualties of last year's retail slowdown, will be able to recover.

Verdict says the UK clothing market grew by just 1 per cent last year to pounds 27bn, the lowest growth rate of the 1990s. Adjusting for the addition of new floor space, Verdict says comparable sales were actually down by 1.5 per cent, precipitated by the poor autumn.

According to Verdict, M&S saw its market share fell from 13.4 per cent to 12.2 per cent in the year. The biggest gains were made by Next, New Look and Arcadia, whose formats include Dorothy Perkins and Principles.

However, the study says M&S will start to hit back at its rivals with a lower price policy. The biggest losers could be BhS, House of Fraser and C&A. Likely winners in the retail clothing race could include Oasis, Warehouse, Next, The Gap and Debenhams.

The report is upbeat on the prospects of a recovery at M&S. "M&S cannot be turned around overnight and 1999 will be a year of refocusing and returning to core values," it says. "The expanded floor space means that once the re-ranging and price repositioning processes are complete, improved performance will flow through quickly."

Verdict says some retailers only had themselves to blame for poor sales last year, with bland, unexciting merchandise. This year should be better, with more colourful ranges apparent in this spring's collections.