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Business Comment: Terry Murden

M&S benefits from a woman’s touch

Marks & SpencerIf, as they say, first impressions count, then the customer will probably be encouraged by the simpler and stylish window dressings at Marks & Spencer. And it may be due to a woman’s touch.

Trading figures for the fourth quarter out today show that the company has stopped the rot in womenswear with a small, but welcome, 0.6% upturn in like-for-like sales.

For chief executive Marc Bolland, it may have come just in time as patient shareholders are given a reason to believe he may have got something right – and his best decision could be the one he made last summer to hand control of its high street stores to the director in charge of the company’s online business.

Laura Wade-Gery took responsibility for the company’s 800 UK stores as part of a revamp of the board and is the first woman to be at the helm of M&S’s retail business. If the company’s womenswear ranges are now back in fashion among its stubbornly loyal but frustrated customers then Ms Wade-Gery will be worth every penny of this year’s bonus.

Fixing the problems at the Castle Donington warehouse has undoubtedly helped put online sales back on track, although customers still complain about it.

In store, there is still a concern that the company is trying to be all things to all men and that it continues to suffer from its insistence on creating its own brands which are competing with bigger names.

While John Lewis and Debenhams stock Ted Baker, Hermes and other concessions, M&S has created its own ranges which sometimes confuse customers as to who is the intended target.

Analysts should also note that the underlying performance owes something to a squeeze on costs and pay for shopfloor staff.

For now, M&S seems to be back in vogue, although one quarter does not in itself mean that the company’s problems are behind it.




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