M&S set to add to high street gloom

Marks & Spencer is expected to add to the gloom on the high street tomorrow when the retail bellwether posts its fourth quarter trading update.

While M&S bucked the trend over the festive season, when like-for-like sales rose by a bigger-than-expected 2.8%, analysts have forecast a decline in like-for-like sales of 2.5% in the 13 weeks to April 2.

The update will give a clearer insight into the full year financial performance at the company, which is on track to report pre-tax profits of £709 million, a 12% rise compared to the previous year.

Retailers have faced a torrid 2011 so far as companies such as John Lewis, PC World owner Dixons Retail and entertainment group HMV have all reported a weak performance over the last three months.

M&S, which launched its celebrity-laden spring advertising campaign last month, is expected to reveal a particularly weak performance in its general merchandise sales, including clothing, which are expected to have dropped 6.2% on a same-store basis.

However, analysts have forecast a 1.3% rise in like-for-like growth for food sales at the chain, down slightly on the 1.8% rise seen in the third quarter, as it continues to be boosted by inflation.

Meanwhile, the City will be looking for further details and progress on new chief executive Marc Bolland's strategic vision for the business.

Mr Bolland's latest move has been to reveal plans for the chain to return to France - a decade after it pulled out of the country.

It aims to open a three-storey outlet on the Champs Elysees in Paris towards the end of 2011. M&S exited France when it closed its 38 stores in continental Europe in 2001 to concentrate on turning around its UK business.

Mr Bolland's strategy for the group, outlined in November, also involves a drive to place the chain's own brand at the forefront of the vision for the business.

In clothing, as well as boosting its own brand, the company plans to invest in its sub-brands - such as womenswear ranges Per Una and Indigo Collection - through improved marketing and clearer positioning in stores.