By Rupert Steiner
It is Britain's biggest clothing stock but the tough and uncertain environment that dragged down Marks & Spencer (MKS.LN) over the crucial festive trading period is the same facing big-name chains Stateside.
Reduced consumer confidence, the impact of discounters and a shift to buying items online, leaving expensive stores empty, were behind another quarter of falling underlying sales at the retail bellwether.
Given the cold winds blowing through high streets on both sides of the Atlantic, M&S last year joined its U.S. peers Sears (SHLDQ), Macy's (M) and JCPenney (JCP), by announcing a raft of store closures as part of a transformation program aimed at slashing costs.
The U.K. retail giant, which sells both clothing and food, also cited mild weather and rivals discounting on Black Friday for 'challenging' trading over November but managed to avoid warning on profit as full year earnings guidance remained unchanged.
Its update came on a busy day for retailers which saw solid updates from Britain's biggest grocer Tesco (TSCO.LN), and the employee owned John Lewis Partnership which owns department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain.
Cycling and car firm Halfords (HFD.LN) issued a profit warning blaming the weather as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said in December its members failed to increase Christmas sales for the first time since the global financial crisis 10 years ago.
Marks & Spencer, which can trace its history back to 1884, posted a 2.4% fall in sales of clothing and home furnishings for the 13 weeks to December 20.
This was worse than the 1.6% fall analysts had predicted but its fall in food sales, down 2.1%, was less than the drop of between 2.5% and 2.7% analysts had forecast.
The shares rose 3 pence, or 1.08%, in early trading on relief that their numbers weren't as bad as feared.
Chief executive Steve Rowe said in a statement: "Against the backdrop of difficult market conditions our performance remained steady across the period. Our food business traded successfully over Christmas as customers responded to improved value. Our transformation program remains on track.
"The combination of reducing consumer confidence, mild weather, Black Friday, and widespread discounting by our competitors made November a very challenging trading period. However, overall our 13-week performance was steady with some early encouraging signs."
M&S, like many established retail groups with legacy store estates, has been facing competition from younger, more agile rivals. Its management put its hands up last year to admit the company's shortcomings as it announced yet another plan to turn the firm around.
It admitted it was well behind the curve in digital and tech, had never tackled its bureaucratic culture, had a store estate that is not fit for the future, and had lost its style and value credentials in clothing and homewares.
It used this reset moment to flag high operating costs with an outdated supply chain and warn it was operationally weak and drifting upscale in food.
In food, M&S has lost its position at the premium end of the market as mainstream rivals Tesco, Sainsbury's (SBRY.LN) and Morrisons (MRW.LN) all improved their ranges. It is also being squeezed at the value end by discounters Lidl and Aldi.
Rowe said: "In food we started on a journey to re-engineer the range and value proposition six months ago and are now making good progress. The underlying trend reflects the transition to 'trusted value' as we lower prices and remove complex and confusing multi-buy promotions.
"There are early signs of volume growth and we expect to see more momentum under a strong new management team as the year progresses.'"
He claimed customers had responded well to the Christmas ranges with the majority of his stores delivering like-for-like revenue growth.
Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at City Index, said: "The fall in food sales, while not as terrible as some were fearing, is still a deep one. Certainly deep enough to sustain doubts about the potency of M&S's lower-price strategy. On the basis of this update, more food store closures can't be ruled out."
In clothing and home M&S said online sales performance was strong. U.K. revenues were up 14%, supported by an increased focus on digital marketing and a state-of-art distribution center at Castle Donington, Leicestershire, 122 miles north of London.
The company said womenswear online growth outperformed its own expectations, driven by areas such as dresses and knitwear. But it is clothing in general that has been a nemesis for a company struggling to move with the times and find a new niche.
M&S has faced fierce competition from so-called "fast fashion" retailers Primark, owned by Associated British Foods, Zara, owned by Inditex, and online players such as ASOS.
Rowe said he is making significant changes to the clothing and home divisions as he focuses "on stylish and wearable wardrobe 'Must-Haves' as we grow our business."
The firm is being given more rope by analysts given its latest transformation program, so there has been little shock value in the poor set of third-quarter results
Kate Ormrod, lead analyst at GlobalData, said: "The real headline is the fact that full year profit guidance remains unchanged. However, despite mentions of a 'steady performance', 'early encouraging signs' and 'progress', slow and steady won't win the retail race and M&S needs to show real evidence of change in ranges and in results, as the pressure to deliver continues to mount."
-Rupert Steiner; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 10, 2019 08:02 ET (13:02 GMT)
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