Marks & Spencer in boardroom rift over whether to accept credit cards

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a boardroom split at Marks & Spencer on whether the group's stores should accept credit cards.

A number of the board are in favour of the move but Robert Colvill, finance director and head of the group's financial services division, is worried about possible damage to the group's charge card business.

It is thought he fears the move could knock pounds 20m off M&S's bottom line and affect profits at the financial services division, which contributed pounds 110m to group profits last year. This division was one of the struggling retailer's few plus points last year and has been delivering consistent annual profit growth of 15-20 per cent.

Mr Colvill would not comment on his views beyond saying that the issue was "more complex than it might first appear".

A Marks & Spencer spokeswoman said the question of accepting credit cards was still "under review". She said the group's customer research had revealed several issues shoppers would like addressed but that credit cards had not been a high priority.

Customers had stressed the need for other changes instead such as better merchandise, improved store designs and improved marketing.

The uncertainty in the M&S boardroom on the credit card issue has surfaced as John Lewis yesterday agreed to accept credit cards in its department stores from 27 September. That leaves M&S as the only major UK retailer that does not accept them.

It has hitherto concentrated on developing its Chargecard, which has 5.2m members. This card also gives the company a valuable database of customers that it can use for direct marketing purposes. This database could be affected if M&S shoppers switched purchases to rival credit cards.

Credit card experts said that after John Lewis's move it is only a matter of time before M&S follows suit. "It must put pressure on them," said a spokesman for the Credit Card Research Group.

However, retail analysts said a further concern might be whether the increased sales that could result from taking credit cards would outweigh the financial charges associated with them. Retailers pay a flat rate of between 1-4 per cent to the credit company on each credit -card transaction. The average charge is 1.6 per cent although major retailers such as John Lewis and M&S would be able to negotiate a fee at the bottom of the range.

John Lewis offers a price pledge to customers that it will be: "Never knowingly undersold." It says this pledge makes it difficult to accept higher costs associated with credit card payments without reducing its margins.

M&S has said it will accept credit-card payments when it launches an Internet ordering service in the autumn.