M&S fills gap in childrenswear department from outside

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The Independent Online

Marks & Spencer yesterday ended a 10-month search for a new head for its troubled childrenswear department, poaching a top Gap executive.

The retailer, which has lost market share in the competitive kids clothing sector, said Anthony Thompson would replace Michele Jobling, who was sacked last October after failing to revive sales.

The appointment marks a return to the UK high street giant for Mr Thompson, 39, who began his career as a graduate trainee with M&S in 1984. He will join the retailer from Gap, where he is the US company's senior vice president for Europe. Analysts said Mr Thompson would have his work cut out to compete with the likes off Next, Matalan, Asda's George and Woolworths' Ladybird ranges.

The UK company saw its share of the childrenswear market sink to 5.2 per cent in the year to July, down from 6.1 per cent the previous year. Three years ago, M&S controlled 8 per cent of the children's clothing sector.

"It sounds like he has got good credentials but I think it will be very difficult for M&S to claw back market-share losses," one retail analyst said. "They are still a long way off the mark in terms of price - their clothes can be more than double those elsewhere," the analyst added.

Mr Thompson, who is on a six-months notice period at the US retailer, said childrenswear has a "huge amount of potential". He will report to David Norgrove, the company's executive director for clothing, and sit on the group operating committee. No salary details were available, an M&S spokeswoman said.

Sales of childrenswear, M&S's biggest problem area, fell 10 per cent last year, despite a major initiative to revive sales of boys' clothing, sponsored by David Beckham. Although the "DB07" range, aimed at boys aged 4 to 11 years, has been a big hit, distribution problems initially hampered sales. Childrenswear accounts for about 10 per cent of M&S's clothing sales and 5 per cent of group sales.

Mr Thompson spent 11 years at M&S before a brief stint as a management consultant. He ran Blackwells, the publishing business for two years, before joining Gap in 2000. Mr Norgrove said the new childrenswear director would bring M&S "good general management experience, with strong strategic planning skills and a track record of building businesses". At Gap, Mr Thompson was responsible for 295 stores across the UK, France and Germany.

Richard Hymen, chairman of the Verdict retail consultancy, said Mr Thompson had helped to revive European sales for the US group despite a difficult backdrop. "Gap lost its focus after having walked on water for decades - a bit M&S-like - but he's done a good job for them," he said. "Kidswear, around 40 per cent of Gap's sales in Britain, Germany and France, has been Gap's strongest performer throughout," Mr Hymen added.

In its trading update last month, M&S admitted childrenswear remained a concern but said its "Back to School" ranges were selling well. Its shares slipped 0.5p to 304.5p.