Marc Bolland faces pressure as Marks & Spencer reports fall in clothing sales

  • @Thompj

A buoyant food performance at Marks & Spencer provided some relief to its chief executive Marc Bolland today but he remains a man under pressure after its fashion sales tumbled again.

Clothing and homewares revenues at the retail bell-wether fell for the seventh consecutive quarter and Bolland admitted March was a “difficult” month, as the prolonged wintry weather drove a dramatic uplift in discounting at High Street rivals.

Some investors, such as Standard Life, have voiced concern at the slow progress of M&S turning around its falling profits but its top team today came out fighting in support of Bolland, who took the helm in May 2010. M&S finance director Alan Stewart said: “We speak regularly to shareholders and they realise it is going to take time and they are supportive.”

M&S’s general merchandise sales, dominated by clothing, fell by 3.8 per cent over the 13 weeks to March 30.

This beat City expectations of a 4.5 per cent fall. To turn around its clothing woes, M&S moved its head of food John Dixon to lead its fashion and homewares division last October and hired former Jaeger boss Belinda Earl as its style director.

Bolland pleaded for them to be given time: “We know we have a job to do.”

Its food performance was also ahead of analysts’ forecasts, as M&S benefited from not being involved in the horsegate scandal. Underlying food sales grew by 4 per cent, its 14th consecutive quarter in positive territory.

Bolland hailed its “biggest-ever” Easter week, and sales were up strongly around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day too. UK sales at stores open at least a year rose by 0.6 per cent, its strongest performance for nearly two years.

Group revenues rose by 3.1 per cent. On rumours of the Qatar Investment Authority mulling a bid for M&S, Bolland said the Takeover Panel would have demanded a statement if there had been “anything serious”.

M&S shares rose by 15.2p, or 4 per cent, to 399p.