Freezing March set to send a chill wind through M&S

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The coldest March in 50 years is expected to add to clothing sales woes at Marks & Spencer today when the retail giant reports its latest trading figures.

Analysts fear the prolonged cold spell will have hit its already under-pressure clothing ranges by dampening demand for spring/summer ranges, with the high street bellwether set to notch its seventh quarter in a row of falling general merchandise sales.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) yesterday said clothing and footwear retailers had endured a dire March, although food sales were up as families treated themselves over Easter and cold weather boosted the appetite for hearty meals, helping overall sales rise 1.9 per cent.

M&S, which will report figures for its final quarter to the end of March, is predicted to reveal that general merchandise sales slumped by 4.5 per cent – with some in the City expecting a fall of 6 per cent – as a result of its poor clothing performance.

But the company’s food sales are expected to grow by 3 per cent as consumers continue to treat themselves and opt to eat in rather than dine out.

This would be a marked improvement on the 0.3 per cent increase in food sales over its third quarter, with the group also set to benefit from the impact of the horse meat scandal on supermarket rivals.

However, its decent food sales have not been enough to offset the slump in general merchandise, which fell 3.8 per cent in the 13 weeks to December 29, pushing overall like-for-like UK sales down 1.8 per cent. That was a performance labelled “not yet satisfactory” by chief executive Marc Bolland.

Amid mounting pressure to turn its fortunes around, Mr Bolland has drafted in former Debenhams and Jaeger boss Belinda Earl to revitalise the womenswear ranges, but in January admitted the group needed more time to formulate its turnaround plan.

Analysts at Shore Capital said M&S is likely to have endured a “horrible” fourth quarter in general merchandise.

They said: “The fourth quarter update could make for pretty challenging reading for investors.”