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High street retailers hanging by a thread? || 1-5-20

High street stalwart Marks and Spencer has relaxed covenants with its lenders until 2021, as it revealed that coronavirus is having a severe impact on its Clothing & Home business.

The retailer also admitted it had not managed to cash in on any of the grocery boom that other supermarkets have enjoyed thanks to its reliance on its food to go offering. Share prices were broadly flat, down one per cent, now standing at 91.88p at the time of writing.

So, what now for the retailer, which had already had a turbulent twelve months even before the current pandemic. Last September, it fell out of the UK 100 for the first time in its history, as its share price hit a 20-year low and its now part way through a five-year turnaround plan.

The retailer has been hit hard by the coronavirus-enforced closures and lack of footfall, especially within Clothing and Home, although its decision to cancel its dividend is expected to save around £210m.

Hargreaves Lansdowne did point out however that ‘some promising foundations are being laid’, especially in terms of its planned joint venture with Ocado. The £750m deal, which will allow M & S customers to buy groceries through Ocado, is said to still be on track to launch in September.

Investec analyst, Kate Calvert, said she was not convinced by the company’s turnaround plans though, although she did go on to say that “the current stock price is not a fair reflection of its financial position.”

High street rival Next also revealed gloomy news disclosing full-year sales could sink by as much as 40 per cent as coronavirus impact has been ‘faster and steeper’ than expected.

Its share price dropped by four per cent, now standing at 4,690.94p, as it announced full-price sales were down 38 per cent in the full year to the end of April.

Retail sales for Next plummeted 52 per cent in the wake of coronavirus closures and online sales fell 32 per cent after the retailer initially closed warehouse operations. It reopened online ordering, to a limited number of orders per day on 14th April, but sales had already taken a hit and up to 70 per cent of its product ranges are now reduced.

In a statement, the retailer said: “The fall off in sales to date has been faster and steeper than anticipated in our March stress test and we are now modelling lower sales for both the first and second half of the year”

So, can Next recover or are the closures and stock reductions likely to take their toll in the long-term?

Many are cautious – Retail Economics Chief Executive Richard Lim said: “This makes for a sobering read and puts into context the size of the challenge at hand.

“The reality of the sales drop was worse than previously feared. It feels like the industry is coming to terms with a recovery that will undoubtedly be slow and protracted.”

However, others have pointed out that Next has an impressive trading record, and its shares have already bounced back from a March low of 3,390p. With the retailer announcing it plans to raise online capacity up to 70 per cent in the next two weeks, and that it will open stores as soon as possible with appropriate social distancing in place, might the firm be well-placed for a post-pandemic recovery?

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