Bumper Christmas sees first M&S clothing sales growth for two years
Marks & Spencer has revealed a return to sales growth in its embattled clothing arm for the first time in nearly two years after a bumper Christmas on the high street.
The retail bellwether said like-for-like sales in its clothing and home division rose 2.3% in the 13 weeks to December 31 - the first growth since the January to March quarter in 2015.
Chief executive Steve Rowe said "better ranges, better availability and better prices" helped sales recover, but the hike also came after a dismal performance a year earlier and as it was boosted by an extra five trading days.
M&S also posted a 0.6% rise in like-for-like sales across its food halls over the festive quarter.
The clothing sales recovery comes as a welcome boost for Mr Rowe, who has been battling to turn around the beleaguered division since taking the helm in April.
Mr Rowe cheered a "great Christmas" for the group, with shares surging as much as 6% at one stage.
But the stock soon pared back gains as attentions turned to the outlook.
Mr Rowe stressed there was more work to do in turning clothing sales around and suggested this quarter may not mark a return to sustained sales growth.
The group is set to suffer a hit to fourth-quarter figures due to the timing of sales as well as a later Easter this year.
John Lewis meanwhile also took the shine off an otherwise impressive performance across the sector as it warned over a difficult year ahead despite solid festive trading.
Mr Rowe said: "We intend to grow the business. It will take time for the consumer to notice that.
"Some of the actions we take in the short term will result in negative periods."
He has pledged to win back "Mrs M&S" - its loyal army of over women aged over 50 - by revamping its clothing offer, cutting everyday prices for nearly a third of its ranges, and increasing staff numbers on the shop floor.
He said he was "pleased with the customer response", while the group has also successfully slashed the number of clearance sales.
The chain was cautious over the consumer outlook, although it did not echo the gloomy warnings from rival Next last week, when it sounded the alarm over profits following dismal Christmas trading.
Mr Rowe said consumer confidence was fragile but "fairly stable", although he confirmed fears of a long-term trend for "people to buy less clothing".
The group's turnaround actions should help M&S ride out the tougher conditions, he said.
M&S announced plans in November to close around 30 UK stores and convert 45 more into food-only shops, while retreating from a raft of international markets.
Kate Calvert, retail analyst at Investec, said it was "too early to call a victory" in its clothing sales fightback.
"With a slowdown in consumer spending expected in the year ahead, we believe this could well go negative again," she added.
M&S saw total sales in the clothing and home division grow by 3.1% over its festive quarter, but around 1.5% of that was down to the extra five extra trading days.
It added this also accounted for around 0.3% of the 5.6% overall rise in total food sales.