The headline numbers in Marks & Spencer’s full-year results today looked like a bloodbath at retail’s most venerable name.
Profits fell an eye-watering 63.5% and like-for-like sales at the crucial clothing and home division were down a depressing 3.4%.
An uplift at the clothing arm in the third quarter evaporated in the final quarter when like-for-likes slumped by 5.9%.
But the headline figures are less indicative of fundamental business performance than they might appear.
They reflect costs such as restructuring and redundancies and changes in the reporting period such as the timing of Easter, which dragged down clothing and home sales by 3.8% in the fourth quarter.
And other numbers revealed in the results – often ones against which M&S judges itself – tell a more encouraging story that may show chief executive Steve Rowe’s strategy could be starting to pay off.
Fewer promotions, more full-price sales
M&S has cut back promotions. There were three fewer big clearance events last year – six, compared to nine the previous year. That drive will continue.
Meanwhile, it reduced clothing lines by 10%, abandoned underperforming sub-brands, cut prices on 2,400 lines and increased availability by as much as 8%.
The result of all of this was a 2.7% increase in full-price sales growth.
More full-price sales, along with buying and sourcing efficiencies, meant that clothing and home gross margin rose by 105 basis points over the year.
Rowe would be the last person to claim that M&S has turned a corner. “This is just the beginning,” he said at today’s results meeting.
But he is confident the retailer is becoming more in tune with what customers want and can continue to make improvements that will be rewarded by shopper spend amid tough fashion retail conditions.
And he is determined to reshape the business to reflect multichannel shopping habits, exploiting the complementary strengths of a bricks-and-mortar presence with a growing online business.
Short term versus long term
Canaccord analyst David Jeary, who rates M&S’ shares hold, took a circumspect view of performance and cautioned it could take years before it was clear whether M&S’ strategy could be judged successful.
He said: “Shorter-term sentiment drivers will likely centre upon progress on P&L/trading metrics, especially those relating to turnover growth and cash gross profit.
“The direction of travel is more positive in our eyes than some in the market believe”
Jonathan Pritchard, Peel Hunt
“M&S’ ability to sustain a less promotional trading stance with a higher mix of full-price sell-through will be particularly important within this context. A sustained run of positive quarterly like-for-like figures in clothing and home would clearly be a positive, but this is easier said than done as the weight of recent history shows.”
However Peel Hunt, which rates M&S a buy, was impressed by how the retailer is improving.
Analyst Jonathan Pritchard says: “It is clear that M&S is seeing some green shoots and the positive nature of the full-price sales graph is testament to that.
“The building blocks to a better offer for customers have been put in place in the larger outlets: the product is better quality and has clearer handwriting, the stores are easier to shop and assistance is more readily on hand from the higher number of staff on the shop floor. Pricing is also keener.
“But we use the word larger advisedly in a store context, because some of these improvements are not yet in place in smaller outlets, nor have some of the less regular shoppers noticed.
“So there is a lot of work still to do, but the direction of travel is more positive in our eyes than some in the market believe.”
Another number signals that M&S’s results are not entirely the car crash that some might argue. The share price, at the time of writing, was up 1.4% at almost 394p, having earlier hit a 12-month high during the day…
…not far off the 400p per share would-be owner Sir Philip Green offered back in 2004. But the hope is Rowe will make M&S worth far more.