Belfast Telegraph

Marks and Spencer 'will not shut Northern Ireland stores' amid UK closure plans

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland Marks and Spencer stores are set to avoid the chop as the high street giant says it is speeding up plans to close under-performing clothing stores and will slow expansion of its Simply Food chain as its battles to restore its fortunes.

The group, which has 21 stores in Northern Ireland, said it would further "reshape" the clothing and home arm to focus on the most successful locations, while also driving more online sales.

But it's understood that Northern Ireland stores will not be among those included in its accelerated clothing store closure plans.

Marks and Spencer will also slam the brakes on its Simply Food store opening programme amid "difficult" trading and launch a "significant" cost review under the next push of its turnaround plan.

It has just opened its latest foodhall at a filling station forecourt close to Belfast International Airport.

Meanwhile, a larger new Marks and Spencer store is to create 80 jobs, and a further 100 during its construction, with a new shop in Craigavon.

Half-year figures at the retailer showed a 5.3% fall in underlying pre-tax profits to £219.1m for the six months to September 30.

Bottom line profits jumped to £118.3m from £25.1m a year earlier thanks to a boost from its international arm after exiting loss-making markets.

Boss Steve Rowe, who has been in the top job for over a year, told the Belfast Telegraph in September: "We're adding about 200 jobs in Northern Ireland, which is a continuation of our success story here.

"Some of our largest market shares are here in Northern Ireland, including our second-largest food market share."

In its latest trading update, like-for-like sales improved in its embattled clothing and home arm, down by a better-than-feared 0.1% in its second quarter after a 1.2% fall in the previous three months.

M&S said revenues overall had stopped falling in the division, while its action to cut the number of clearance sales saw full-price sales surge by 5.3%.

Food sales came as a disappointment though, down 0.1% in the second quarter, as the group admitted it needed to review prices and ranges.

Mr Rowe said: "The business still has many structural issues to tackle as we embark on the next five years of our transformation, in the context of a very challenging retail and consumer environment."

The group also confirmed it has launched the hunt for a successor to finance chief Helen Weir, who is leaving to pursue a "plural career" and seek a variety of board positions and advisory roles. The group's plans to step up its overhaul comes a year after it first announced that it would shut 30 of its larger UK stores, with a further 45 being downsized or converted to food-only, while also axing 53 loss-making international stores.

It has so far completed six of the 30 announced UK closures.

Belfast Telegraph

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