Belfast Telegraph

Positive Christmas news expected in Marks & Spencer figures

Marks & Spencer is set to shrug off gloomy warnings from rival Next and show a long-awaited recovery in its clothing arm when it posts Christmas figures on Thursday.

The retail bellwether is expected by most analysts to eke out a 0.2% rise in third-quarter sales across its general merchandise business, which would mark the division's first sales growth since early 2015.

It would come despite City fears over the group's festive performance after fashion chain Next warned on sales and profits after dismal Christmas trading.

Shares in M&S and Debenhams were hit hard as Next boss Lord Wolfson sounded the alarm over an "even tougher" 2017 for clothes retailers.

Clive Black, at Shore Capital, believes many of the woes at Next are "centred on company rather than market specific matters".

He is predicting clothing sales at M&S in the range of minus 0.5% to growth of 0.5%.

Retail analyst Andrew Wade, at Numis Securities, is more optimistic and is forecasting clothing and homewares sales to rise by as much as 1%.

But he said much of this is down to the exceptionally weak performance from a year earlier, when sales in the division slumped by nearly 6%.

He said: "M&S performed so poorly in clothing and homewares through the third quarter last year, we see a good possibility that the division reports a small positive LFL outcome this time."

He added that the result could also be helped by more favourable weather and the timing of Christmas, which has meant extra trading days versus a year earlier.

The firm's food halls are set to see sales remain flat, according to Numis.

A recovery in the clothing business would be a welcome boost for M&S boss Steve Rowe and his team, even if it proves temporary.

Mr Rowe announced plans in November to close around 30 UK stores and convert 45 more into food-only shops, while also announcing a retreat from a raft of international markets.

The overhaul will affect around 100 stores as it looks to cut back on clothing and home while boosting its Simply Food chain.

Details of the restructure came as it said underlying pre-tax profits fell 18.6% to £231.3 million in the six months to October 1, while bottom-line profits crashed 88.4% to £25.1 million.

Supermarket giant Tesco is expected to emerge as one of the festive winners in the sector in next week's raft of updates.

Experts at Shore Capital believe the chain kept its sales recovery on track over the crucial Christmas season, putting its Big Four rivals in the shade.

The group saw like-for-like sales rise by 0.9% in its second quarter as its fightback against the discounters gathered pace.

This marked its third quarter of sales growth in a row.

Clive Black, at Shore Capital, predicts the group will have notched up its fourth quarter in a row of rising sales over the festive period, with like-for-like growth of 1.25% to 1.75% in the three months to the end of November.

He said Thursday's update may show slightly slower growth in the key six-week Christmas period, at 1.4% after the group axed its Clubcard Boost promotion, although this is still set to be a winning performance against its main rivals.

It would also mark a step up from the 1.3% Christmas sales hike seen a year earlier.

But the City will be alert to any detail on the overall financial impact of October's cyber attack on Tesco Bank, when hackers stole £2.5 million from the current accounts of 9,000 customers.

Morrisons and Sainsbury's report on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively and are set to show a mixed performance, according to Shore Capital.

It is forecasting a resurgent Morrisons to post like-for-like sales up by between 0.25% and 0.75%, but Sainsbury's is set to have lost out to rival Tesco with third-quarter sales falling by up to 1%, or flat at best.

Mr Black said Sainsbury's is "one of, if not the, prime 'victim' of any shopping shifts into a recovering Tesco".

Its recent Argos acquisition may have fared better, with Shore Capital pencilling in a sales rise of 0.5% to 1.5%.

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