Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2004 16:27 UK

Is Marks & Spencer's decline terminal?

By Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter

Marks & Spencer shop front
M&S' position on the High Street is under threat

Talk about the retailer Marks & Spencer and the words that come up most often are "underwear" and "food".

For years, it has been a stalwart of UK High Streets, providing generation after generation with their smalls and snacks.

But times have changed and so has the language.

Today, Marks & Spencer is often mentioned in the same breath as "dire", "downturn" and "struggle".

Many consumers and investors are turning their backs on the brand, denting sales and the share price in the process.

What smarts even more is that under chairman Luc Vandevelde the company seemed to have pulled itself out of the sales slump that set in during the late 1990s.

Blame game

Management has since been accused of taking its eye off the ball and all talk of a recovery has been shelved.

Pouring further oil on the fire, Marks & Spencer on Wednesday reported revenue figures for the January-to-March period that fell short of market expectations.

Many analysts are predicting that there is worse to come.

Tony Shiret of Credit Suisse First Boston reckons that "things are pretty bad" and the company "is in denial".

Marks & Spencer clothing, he continues, is "not very price competitive" and as a result customers are being lured by cheaper, snazzier and more aggressive rivals.

Management attempts to make the stores more shopper friendly have only confused matters, he adds.

Marks & Spencer's chief executive Roger Holmes admits that "sales this quarter are clearly not good enough," adding that its share of the clothing market has probably shrunk for a second quarter in a row.

The firm currently accounts for about 11% of total UK sales.

Better times

But, Mr Holmes counters, the company is "taking action on a number of fronts to accelerate the transformation of the business and deliver improved performance".

Further cost cutting, he says, will help the company hit profit targets of about 775m.

Marks & Spencer furnishings
Can Lifestores revive M&S?

Marks & Spencer has announced plans to fire as many as 1,000 employees and said it is looking at ways to buy products more cheaply.

It also is taking steps to spruce up its image and has earmarked 400m to spend during the next 12 months.

On top of that, the company recently launched a Lifestores furnishing shop, operates Simply Food stores and sells clothes under the Per Una label.

The message from Marks & Spencer is simple. It may take time, they say, but we will get it right and when we do, sales and market share are set to increase.

Third way

Some analysts, however, reckon that throwing more money at the problem may not be the best way to boost profits.

What is needed is for both the market and Marks & Spencer to re-evaluate their position.

Marks & Spencer, they say, is a mature, profitable company, that has a large slice of many retail sectors and is market leader in others.

And therein lies its problem.

Given the competitive nature of the retail market, it is inevitable that rivals will take market share, especially in segments such as lingerie where it gets more than 26% of all sales.

The company should now concentrate on closing many of its smaller stores and getting margins as wide as possible, they say.

The key to the future will be whether Marks & Spencer is happy with the tags of "profitable" but "smaller".

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