Marks and Spencer assailed on all fronts by shareholders

Marc Bolland blamed the like-for-like 0.4 per cent fall in general merchandise on the cooler weather in May

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The Independent Online

Marks and Spencer’s board has faced a barrage of criticism from shareholders at its annual general meeting.

There were attacks on everything from the poor design of its clothes to a failure to adopt the Living Wage, and calls for more transparency in its international reporting, as the retailer’s longed-for recovery stalled with non-food sales falling in the three months to the end of June.

Marc Bolland, the chief executive, blamed the like-for-like 0.4 per cent fall in general merchandise on the cooler weather in May, followed by heavy promotions in June, but suggested this was just a blip – one that affected the entire high street. The results also showed that food sales rose 0.3 per cent on a like-for-like basis and that international sales rose 0.7 per cent.

At the meeting in Wembley, the chairman, Robert Swannell, told hundreds of shareholders: “The work is not finished… but I’m pleased we’ve made strong progress against three of our four priorities on last year.”

These include food, the international operations and improving profit margins, while womenswear continues to suffer. A strong team of designers is helping, but not everyone at the meeting was convinced. One shareholder, Muriel Conway, a former womenswear designer for M&S, said she felt the prints were “ugly and vulgar”.

She added: “I could weep when I see what is in stores today. Where is the originality? The flair? The newness? The good taste?

“[Former M&S chairman] Lord Sieff must be turning in his grave. He used to say to me, ‘the day you lose your core customers is the day you lose your business’, and he was right. Not only have you lost your core customers, you have alienated them. They don’t even bother to shop any more. We women have not changed. You have changed. You have lost your identity.”

Campaigners also called on the board to adopt the Living Wage and Mr Swannell insisted he would be happy to meet the pressure group, adding: “We want to be leaders and go on showing leadership.” However, he was asked later what percentage of staff were paid above the Living Wage of £9.15 in London and £7.85 everywhere else. He declined to answer.

Activists from the Craftivist Campaign also backed the Living Wage calls, handing board members handkerchiefs hand-embroided with messages.

Other investors called on M&S to give a breakdown of sales in each country. Despite the tough questions, all resolutions were passed.

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