Perhaps the most striking aspect of Marks and Spencer’s second-quarter sales figures was not so much their strength as the company’s keen desire to manage expectations for the rest of the year.
Given the way that trading has outstripped expectations in the first half of the year, you might expect some upsurge in the full-year forecasts for the retailer, but in the event M&S left its predictions untouched.
Analysts were generally more optimistic and positive. “Despite management trying to keep expectations low, we view today’s figures as too strong for anything but substantial upgrades for FY forecasts,” said Tom Gadsby, head of research at Matrix.
“Current FY forecasts are based on 1.5% like-for-like sales over the full year, so sales would have to collapse over the second half of the year to reach that level.”
Neil Saunders, consulting director of Verdict, found more grounds for optimism in general market trends, arguing that conditions are now “much more favourable” to M&S.
“In food, lower inflation means a less price-sensitive consumer who is willing to buy more premium product,” he said, adding that this could “play into M&S’s hands”.
So why is M&S being so downbeat? First of all, because the company knows that these apparently buoyant figures are set in the context of some pretty weak comparatives from last year – comparatives which will become more difficult as the year progresses.
But the big imponderable for the third and fourth quarters is the expected worsening of trading conditions, impacted by increased VAT rates in January, public spending cuts and a likely rise in unemployment.
Like other major UK retailers, M&S does not expect this to prompt a “double-dip” recession, but it is sufficiently worried about the situation – and rising commodity prices – to remain cautious for the moment.
Gadsby, however, is considerably less Eeyore-like, upping Matrix’s full-year like-for-like general merchandise sales forecast from 3.2% to 4.8%, and increasing its EPS forecast by 5%.
At Verdict, Saunders is slightly more cautious, admitting that there is a “big question mark” over how long M&S’s currently strong performance can be maintained, and adding that competition from Waitrose will mean the company “will have its work cut out to keep sales growth at such positive levels”.
The company’s second-quarter sales figures also mark the beginning of the tenure of new chief executive Marc Bolland, and while the former Morrisons boss can’t really take credit for these results, his influence will be felt soon enough.
“Beyond its financial importance, today’s trading update from M&S has a certain psychological significance,” said Saunders. “It is the benchmark against which he will be judged.”
Bolland’s plans for M&S – he has so far hinted at “evolution, not revolution” – will be clearer once he has revealed the results of his strategic review on 11 November. And maybe then the future fortunes of this famous retailer will also become easier to divine.