Jeremy Warner: Downturn bites hard at Marks & Spencer

Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks & Spencer, is no quitter, but he must occasionally wonder why he didn't quietly bow out earlier this year while he still had the chance. Instead, he not only incurred the wrath of shareholders by elevating himself to the executive chairmanship, but by doing so he has ensured he is still at the helm as the ship sails into the recessionary storm. Already the impact on sales and profits is brutal.

Sir Stuart could have retired on a high note, with the company once again in £1bn profit territory. Instead, he has hung around long enough for the City to start questioning anew whether he is actually any good. The big disappointment in the half-year figures was foods, where the company has been forced to reinvest a sizeable chunk of its margin in price promotions. Even so, this did not prevent a 5 per cent fall in like-for-like sales. M&S's unashamedly upmarket foods proposition is all very well in boom times, but when the going gets tough, it becomes exceptionally vulnerable to value-driven competition.

On clothing and general merchandise, M&S claims broadly to have held its market share, but again, what a contrast with discounters. Yesterday, Associated British Foods released figures which (embarrassingly for M&S) showed that its Primark subsidiary is still managing to grow sales and profits despite the downturn. This apparently continued even into October, a month which M&S described as "volatile".

Still, although things plainly look difficult for M&S, they can hardly be described as terminal. M&S has been on the high street for 127 years and, as Sir Stuart remarks, should be around for a few more yet. Costs, capital and market spend are being pared across the group, and debt remains well within manageable proportions.

How different this might have looked had Sir Philip Green succeeded with his highly leveraged bid a few years back. Human dynamo that he is, maybe Sir Philip would by now have paid back much of the money he planned to borrow to finance the takeover. If he hadn't, M&S might today already have become the first major retail casualty of the downturn. Enough "what if" history. For the time being, the dividend is held. Whether it will survive once others begin to cut theirs is anyone's guess.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor