Struggling M&S hit by buyer’s departure

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Efforts to repair flagging clothing sales at Marks & Spencer have been dealt another blow by the departure of a key womenswear executive.

Gillian Ridley Whittle, development and buying director for womenswear, has told M&S she plans to leave to join Australian department store group Target.

Her exit will heap more pressure on the chain as investors brace for its ninth consecutive quarter of falling general merchandise sales, which span clothing and non-food.

Chief executive Marc Bolland is attempting to revive clothing sales with a star-studded advertising campaign, which features Dame Helen Mirren and Olympic boxer Nicola Adams.

However, analysts at Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse recently cut their general merchandise forecasts to negative for the three months to the end of September.

Credit Suisse analysts said while the long-awaited autumn/winter ranges show “some signs of improvement”, they will not be enough to transform underlying sales or margins.

After the chain disappointed with a 1.6 per cent fall in like-for-like general merchandise sales in the 13 weeks to the end of June, Deutsche analysts now expect a two per cent decline during its second quarter, compared with a previous forecast for flat sales.

Ms Ridley Whittle’s departure follows the exit of Janie Schaffer – dubbed M&S’s “Knicker Queen” – who was hired to reinvigorate the underwear section but walked out as director of lingerie and beauty after just three months.

Ms Ridley Whittle had run lingerie temporarily since Ms Schaffer’s exit in April, and recently took up a strategic role in womenswear.

A source close to the company insisted it is business as usual and her exit is not a major blow.

The group’s new autumn/winter ranges began arriving in stores from July and were formally launched at the start of September.

M&S reports first-half results on November 5.