Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose appeared irked yesterday by journalists’ questions about the retailer’s lacklustre Christmas trading figures. Why, he complained, hadn’t the results from Debenhams and Next come under such scrutiny?
Rose no doubt wished yesterday that he could convert the quarter of a million inches he helped shave off the waistlines of British women through sales of Magic Knickers in to pounds on his balance sheet over Christmas. Clothing like-for-like sales fell 6.5 per cent at M&S in the 13 weeks to December 27, a dismal performance.
To answer Rose’s question, the key difference was each retailer’s stance on pre-Christmas promotions. While M&S and Debenhams seemed to be playing tit for tat – launching a string of spectaculars in the run-up to Christmas – there was one key difference.
Debenhams’ promotional schedule had been planned, according to chief executive Rob Templeman – with one change, an extension to a three-day Sale - and therefore factored in to its budget for the year. As a result, its margins were flat.
Next’s sales decline may look as equally galling as M&S’s figures on the surface, but chief executive Simon Wolfson’s refusal to go on Sale before Christmas means that margins are also likely to be in line with last year. The fall was also forecast much before the event.
However, M&S’s one-day spectaculars, which were last-minute reactions, meant the retailer took a hit. Gross margin is now expected to be 175 basis points lower than last year. M&S was forced to sacrifice price and has suffered the market’s wrath as a result.
New Look increased like-for-likes by 2.8 per cent over Christmas and maintained margins by “sticking to its knitting” as chief executive Carl McPhail said. It has achieved its success through refocusing the business with more in-house design, a closer relationship with suppliers, better product, pricing and more astute stock management. It wasn’t forced into promotion at Christmas.
Debenhams has gone in the other direction to M&S, with success, by growing sales of its higher-priced Designers at Debenhams range. M&S’s attempt to be all things to all customers is not paying off.
Meanwhile, House of Fraser has today moved to reassure the market about its financial position, aiming to quash ugly rumours that it has been struggling in the face of imminent bank loan repayments.
It has paid £34.5 million ahead of schedule and revealed a respectable 1.5 per cent like-for-like fall over Christmas. However, it acknowledged that it was more aggressive with its marketing activity this year in response to the environment, so it seems it, too, will have taken a hit to profit margins.
Chairman Don McCarthy said that there will be a further realignment of its brand portfolio. This is an inevitable and necessary move for a retailer that wants to compete along the lines of Selfridges in terms of becoming an exclusive house of brands.
There is a view that fashion retailers such as Alexon and Jacques Vert don’t have a home in the department store any more. And it will be interesting to follow the future of fellow Baugur-backed Mosaic brands, such as Karen Millen and Coast.
However, in the current climate, House of Fraser – much like M&S with its stretched pricing architecture – needs to strike the right balance between tempting shoppers in with brands they know and trust and not alienating a jittery consumer with unknown labels at prices they are no longer prepared to stomach.