Marks & Spencer relies on food for growth as clothing struggles

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RETAILER Marks & Spencer reported sharply contrasting fortunes yesterday as buoyant trading in its food halls helped offset more dismal sales figures in clothing.

Announcing its strongest growth in two years, Leeds-born M&S said overall like-for-like sales excluding changes in store space were up 0.6 per cent in the 13 weeks to March 30.

The improvement was driven by a four per cent jump in sales in the food department as consumers showed signs of trading up to the retailer in light of the horsemeat scandal affecting a number of supermarkets.

Clothing sales remained under pressure, with the cold weather and weak consumer confidence forcing M&S to increase promotional activity in March. Like-for-like sales were down 3.8 per cent in general merchandise but this was better than a number of City forecasts.

M&S shares surged four per cent as yesterday’s underlying sales figure represented a big improvement on the decline of 1.8 per cent seen in the previous three months.

General merchandise sales also fell by 3.8 per cent in the 13 weeks to December 29, but food has done much better than the 0.3 per cent rise seen in the previous quarter.

Chief executive Marc Bolland, who is under increasing pressure to revive the clothing business, said a new fashion management team had started to deliver improvements in terms of stock availability and management. Mr Bolland added: “We delivered an excellent result in food, with performance well ahead of the market, as customers continued to trust us for provenance and quality.” M&S recently launched an extended store in the new Trinity Leeds shopping centre.