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Major shake-up at struggling M&S will be felt at its stores in Northern Ireland

By Margaret Canning

Published 09/11/2016

Marks & Spencer plans to focus on its Simply Food outlets
Marks & Spencer plans to focus on its Simply Food outlets

Some of Marks & Spencer's stores in Northern Ireland could be adapted to sell food instead of clothes while others could face closure as the retailer embarks on a major overhaul.

The company has eight Simply Food stores in Northern Ireland, three of them in Belfast.

There are another 10 stores around the province which sell food and other lines. The company employs around 1,000 people here.

UK-wide, it is to axe 30 stores and slash shop space devoted to its ailing clothing ranges as it focuses more on food under the shake-up.

The high street giant also warned of around 2,100 job losses overseas under plans to shut 53 shops across 10 markets, including China and France.

Chief executive Steve Rowe announced the latest restructure plans as he revealed that half-year profits crashed 88.4% to £25.1m, partly due to higher pension costs, while earnings fell 18.6% to £231.3m on an underlying basis.

It has said that clothing departments would be shut in 60 of its 304 full-line stores across the UK, with 30 stores closing altogether, and 45 shops to be converted into Simply Food outlets, downsized or relocated.

Around 100 stores overall will be affected by the changes over the next five years, it said. The group remained tight-lipped on the number of UK staff expected to be impacted or which stores would close.

But it said that, where possible, it would keep "job continuity" for affected employees.

The retailer yesterday revealed yet another fall in sales for the division, this time of 5.9% in the first half.

It narrowed the sales decline from 8.9% in the first quarter - its worst performance for a decade - to 2.9% in the second quarter.

Northern Ireland retail expert Donald McFetridge said it was "inevitable" stores here would be affected. "Merchandise - which includes fashion and homeware ranges - has been struggling for years and no one at M&S has been able to sort out the problem. 

"So, chief executive Steve Rowe is taking a much more pragmatic and sensible approach to the fortunes at M&S and plans to concentrate on what they're good at: food.

"It is more than likely that some floor space in some of the bigger, mixed-line/full-range stores here will lose square footage to food, but, in the long-term, that's no bad thing. 

"In fact, it could very well safeguard jobs for the future."

Shopworkers' trade union Usdaw said M&S staff would be "extremely concerned" about where the axe will fall.

Mr Rowe, who took over from Marc Bolland in April, said it was "not about the M&S brand disappearing", adding that the group would have more stores overall under aims to open 200-plus Simply Food outlets.

He said: "These are tough decisions, but vital to building a future M&S that is simpler, more relevant, multi-channel and focused on delivering sustainable returns."

Shares in the group fell 2% as the firm's half-year results underlined the woes facing its clothing arm.

Mr Rowe - a company veteran with 26 years' service - is aiming to turn around its clothing arm and get profits back on track.

Belfast Telegraph

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