M&S plans return to Europe by buying back its old stores

Marks & Spencer is planning a return to Continental Europe and hopes to buy back the stores it controversially sold there nearly a decade ago, it was claimed today.

The high street chain is said to have approached a number of European retailers about re-acquiring properties it gave up in 2001 when it closed its entire Continental chain, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

It is understood to have contacted Spanish chain El Corte Ingles about taking back some of the nine shops it sold to the company, while it is also said to be looking into re-acquiring some of the 18 French stores that went to retailer Galaries Lafayette, including its former Paris flagship store.

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The plans could be announced as early as next week, when the group's new chief executive Marc Bolland unveils his review of the chain.

He is understood to want to rebuild the group's base in Europe quickly in a bid to kick-start its international growth.

But the group is likely to face a significant bill as a result of the move, as the price of commercial property in Europe has increased since 2001, despite the current downturn.

M&S announced in March 2001 that it planned to close all 38 of its Continental stores by the end of that year as part of a group restructuring.

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The group's Continental stores had traded well during the 1980s and 1990s, but the division made a 6.1m loss in 2000, and this widened to 10.8m during the first half of 2001.

But the retailer's decision to pull out of the Continent caused uproar among its European workers and many consumers.

Sir Stuart Rose, M&S's outgoing chairman and former chief executive, has said in the past that he regrets the group's decision to exit Europe, which was taken before he was appointed.

The chain currently has 320 stores overseas, but the majority of these are run as franchises, and it has no wholly-owned stores in Western Europe.

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The group has previously outlined plans to expand further in India and China.

An M&S spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Meanwhile, it was reported in The Sunday Times that Mr Bolland has recruited head-hunters to find new executives to lead the group's international, online and homeware divisions, in a further indication that he is going to place a new emphasis on the group's overseas opportunities.

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