Belfast Telegraph

Marks & Spencer on course to open two new Northern Ireland shops despite closures in rest of UK

By Margaret Canning

Marks & Spencer has said that it's on course to open two new stores in Northern Ireland, despite plans to shut up to 100 branches in the UK.

The retail chain, which already has 20 stores here, is expected to report a troubling set of annual figures tomorrow, with city analysts forecasting that the grocery item profits could have dropped by 1.1% since last year.

Reports have suggested that there will be 40 closures, in addition to around 60 already confirmed.

However, its performance in Northern Ireland appears to be bucking the UK trend, as a spokeswoman said it's still on course to open two stores here. None of the existing stores is expected to shut.

A Carrickfergus branch is due to open in spring next year, creating 75 new jobs.

And a new foodhall in Craigavon's Marlborough Retail Park is also on track, and due to open later this year.

But UK-wide, its food arm has been coming under intense pressure. City analysts forecast that like-for-like sales in food could have fallen by as much as 1.1% last year, although consensus estimates put the figure as being down by 0.2%.

If comparable food sales come in negative in the fourth quarter, it would represent a year of decline in the division at a time of rapid change in the sector. The rise of Aldi and Lidl, Tesco's takeover of Booker, and Sainsbury's proposed merger with Asda have piled further pressure on a sector grappling with falling consumer confidence and rising costs. M&S has previously described the food arm as exhibiting "ongoing under-performance", with chief executive Steve Rowe saying he will slow expansion of the Simply Food chain as the group battles to restore its high street fortunes.

Meanwhile, high street retailer Next has said the trend for Company Voluntary Arrangements - which enable troubled companies to stay in business by negotiating lower rents and other concessions - is creating an unequal playing field.

Next said a CVA for one retailer in a shopping centre should also bring about lower rents for others. According to the Sunday Times, it's now demanding a CVA clause when it renegotiates leases. New Look is one example of a company which has entered a CVA, with rent reductions of up to 55%.

Belfast Telegraph

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