James Moore: M&S will have to smarten up or its loyal customers may take the Lidl option

 

Outlook There is a "glass half full" case for Marks & Spencer. No, really. It's true that the iconic retailer's first-half profits are down 10 per cent, and that this is the second half-yearly fall in a row. But M&S at least made more than the City had expected after the supply debacles that left the company short of its most popular lines earlier in the year.

And chow down on this: the food operation that has been propping Marc Bolland's reign up continues to defy gravity.

Running a premium food business in the current economic climate ought to be a recipe for disaster. Astute and value-conscious shoppers will be well aware there are certain M&S lines for which remarkably similar equivalents can be found in Lidl at less than half the price.

Despite this consumers appear happy to throw good money the way of M&S simply for the privilege of having its logo stamped into the chocolate on their favourite biscuits. That's sweet for a retailer in urgent need of a sugar rush.

Trouble is the "glass half empty" case is just so much stronger. Take that food business. Figures out this morning from the British Retail Consortium will show that food price inflation is on the march again, increasing to 4 per cent.

It's true that other parts of the economy have provided some relief, both to the embattled consumer and a Bank of England which has very little room for manoeuvre these days.

It's also true that food inflation has been even higher.

But if M&S has to keep hiking its prices to keep up there may eventually come a point when at least some of its shoppers hold their noses and head elsewhere, if not to Lidl's then at least to Morrisons, Mr Bolland's old shop.

Which means the embattled chief executive really needs to get general merchandise right. For which read womenswear, which is still where the success of his regime will be judged.

Simply stamping M&S on a skirt or a jumper isn't going to persuade people to pay up for it in the same way they will pay up for a chocolate biscuit. The look has to be right.

Lidl's equivalent when it comes to clothes, Primark, is going great guns and not just because its clobber is cheap. It sells stock that its customers want to buy and like the look of. Something that M&S has failed to do.

And for those M&S exiles who can't bring themselves to darken Primark's doors, there's John Lewis, or perhaps Debenhams, or old rival Next. All of them have seen improvements in their half or full-year results in recent weeks.

Mr Bolland has taken action to improve his company's supply chain so the debacle of earlier this year, when it lacked the woollens customers wanted during an unseasonal cold snap, shouldn't be repeated.

He's also shaken up his management team: John Dixon, the man who waved the magic wand at food, is now at the controls of general merchandise with former Debenhams and Jaeger chief Belinda Earl on hand as style director, at least for two or three days a week, to ensure a better reception for this year's collection.

They'd better have their pixie dust ready. The good work behind the scenes won't be worth a cheapo Lidl's chocolate biscuit if the clothes out front don't sell this autumn.

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