Unloved high street icon Marks & Spencer (MKS) is marked up 5.8p (1.4%) to 426.2p despite unveiling a mixed fourth quarter update. Clothing remains the millstone around Marks & Spencer's neck, though today's share price rise reflects optimism new CEO Steve Rowe (pictured below) can engineer a long-awaited period of positive change in the Clothing and Home division, formerly known as General Merchandise (GM).
Click here to view today's Q4 missive, an update marking the City facing debut of M&S 'lifer' Rowe, successor as CEO to long-serving Dutchman Marc Bolland. While the iconic retailer's food like-for-like sales were flat, overall UK food sales grew 4%, 'M&S' again outperforming a distressed grocery market with a boost from new space.
As ever, all eyes are on M&S' struggling fashion and homewares arm that has consistently struggled to grow same-store sales. Here, M&S once again reports weak ongoing trade, like-for-like sales sagging 2.7% in a flat, deflationary market, though the decline is less severe than the 3.5% fall forecast by the consensus compiled by Bloomberg.
Investors like the new leader's forthright comments that 'although the sales decline in Clothing and Home was lower than last quarter, our performance remains unsatisfactory and there is still more we need to do. Turning around our Clothing and Home business by improving our customer offer is our number one priority. I will update you on my thoughts on the business in May.'
Shore Capital's retail guru Clive Black sticks with his 'buy' rating on M&S. He writes: 'Given his nature, dynamic, active and to the point, we do anticipate that M&S will enter a period of further change albeit second guessing the nature and extent of the change under Mr. Rowe is difficult. Whilst he has been in the ‘designate’ seat for a few months, a fuller update is to be provided, as may reasonably expected, at the group’s preliminary results on the 25th May. We do, however, expect the prime focus of attention to be on the front end delivery, particularly of aforementioned UK GM, so the ranges, the merchandising, the web-site and store estate.'
Furthermore, Black says: 'In the near-term M&S from a financial perspective may be on a course to go a little backwards in order to go forwards depending upon Mr. Rowe’s prognosis for the business. However, whilst it is only an act of faith to some degree, he is an executive that we are minded to back, one with the commitment, energy and insight to demonstrably take M&S on a better course, something for which long-standing shareholders’ pine.'
Over at Cantor Fitzgerald Europe however, Freddie George reiterates his 'sell' recommendation, writing: 'The appointment of Steve Rowe as CEO as from the beginning of April is unlikely, in our view, to improve prospects. There is no easy fix for the General Merchandise business. In the meantime, since 2008, M&S’s track record has been at best underwhelming; UK pre-tax profits have declined by a third; international profits have been flat; the dividend has been reduced and net debt worryingly remains above £2 billion.'