There was a workmanlike feel to Marks & Spencer’s results this week.

There was a workmanlike feel to Marks & Spencer’s results this week. The retailer posted underlying profit before tax of £705.9m, down from £714.3m the previous year. Pre-tax profit fell from £780.6m to £658m. While slightly above expectations, the figures also heralded the first fall in profits for three years.

They are a fair reflection of M&S’s performance and where it sits in the league table of British retailers. While there is little for this venerable brand to panic about, neither is it setting the agenda in the manner it could be.

Announcing the results, chief executive Marc Bolland struck a bullish tone, claiming: “Marks and Spencer performed well in a challenging economic environment and made good progress in delivering our strategy.” But he also admitted that plans to increase group revenues by £1.5bn to £2.5bn by March 2014 were being cut to £1.1bn to £1.7bn. Bolland’s optimism – he describes himself as a “glass half-full person” – is not unfounded. The retailer’s UK pilot stores are delivering decent results, which it says has given it confidence to push on with the second phase of development.

The international business, while under pressure from the Eurozone crisis, showed encouraging signs in key emerging markets and there are plans to open around 100 international stores per year going forward. Food remains a standout performer and the retailer’s move on beauty has captured the attention of rivals.

But, across a number of key areas, there’s a sense M&S is still biding its time for the return of consumer confidence, when it should be leading British retail’s efforts to trade its way out of this financial crisis. 

The multichannel offer is improving yet still relies heavily on the group’s large store footprint and the huge cost base this requires, leaving it behind the curve when it comes to rivals such as Next, which has a more developed multichannel model.

But, it’s in clothing where the biggest concerns lie. There are fears that M&S is trapped in the middle of a market that continues to polarise, eroding its relevance to its core female audience in particular. 

M&S’s strategy for growth is not short of initiatives – whether it be international, store revamps, food or online. But its critics will continue to wonder whether any of these are being pushed fast and far enough. The concern must be that the poor economy is masking a strategic slump that will impact the retailer’s ability to take full advantage of a recovery when it finally occurs.