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Business Comment

Dalton Philips buys time by going cheap as Marc Bolland eases slowly to safety

My Week

A year ago, the two toughest jobs in retail were held by Dalton Philips at Wm Morrison and Marc Bolland at Marks & Spencer. Fast forward to today and I would say the gruesome twosome are now Mr Philips and Philip Clarke at Tesco.

That begs two questions: how has Mr Philips kept his job – and what has Mr Bolland done to lift himself away from my completely subjective high street trapdoor?

First of all Mr Philips. The Irishman perversely bought himself some time by ripping up his strategy for Morrisons and starting again. Slashing prices and selling off assets he bought only recently, such as pre-school chain Kiddicare, stunned investors so much that chairman Sir Ian Gibson became a lightning rod for criticism for allowing Mr Philips to change direction so sharply.

Taking the battle to ultra-cheap competitors Aldi and Lidl won't be easy. Latest sales figures suggest Morrisons is getting worse before it gets better.

In contrast, Mr Bolland won breathing space thanks to a Christmas trading period that showed signs of life in M&S's all-important clothing business. At times, the pace of the Dutchman's "step-by-step" transformation has seemed glacial. But that is to underplay what has been going on under the bonnet. Souping up the supply chain, opening a shiny new distribution centre at Castle Donington in Leicestershire and taking back control of its web sales from Amazon have taken time – and money.

From hereon in, Mr Bolland must prove that that investment can have the desired effect on trading. M&S will always be beholden to fashionistas who pick apart its latest range. If only its clothing lines could please shoppers as reliably as its food range, which looks to me impervious to the supermarket price war.

Pleasing the City might come easier, at least in the short term. As Mr Bolland's investment phase comes to an end, investors have high hopes of a dividend rise come the annual results on 20 May. And if M&S's profit margins are growing too, all the better.