Who's getting into women's clothing? The story of dipping M&S profits

Marks & Spencer's non-food like-for-like sales are down 4.3 percent Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Today brings a stuffed shopping trolley of retail figures. Combined, they give one of the clearest indications possible of how the high street - and the consumer - is coping in these tough times.

First, M&S reported falling half-year profits. They dipped by 9.7 percent - dragged down by its worst non-food sales performance for three years.

There is always a focus on this store - 21 million Britons a week shop here, so it is seen as a way of taking the temperature of the wider retail economy.

Across the high street there is a problem selling non-food items ... but at M&S many believe there is a particular issue. It is still doing well in food - but womenswear, one of its core activities, has hit problems.

Some say it's not so much the shop that's changed, it's the typical 55-year-old woman - seen as a key target market. Retail analysis suggests that this group of women is nowadays more likely to be adventurous and less loyal to clothing outlets.

M&S has to get more adventurous and surprising to capture their attention - and yesterday it announced that its new head of womenswear is a former chief creative officer of Victoria’s Secret – whose zesty products are marketed using supermodels.

And also today another (but very different) clothing giant - Primark - announced a 17 percent rise in profits. In these brutal economic times the concentration on lower prices and getting fashion trends on the racks quickly is paying dividends big time for them.

The final set of figures is from the British Retail Consortium, showing sales were down 0.1 percent in October compared with the same period last year. In fact, these are the lowest sales figures for 11 months.

It's yet another indication that people are only buying essentials.

As retailers now face the biggest shopping season of the year - they are all banking on us having a splash-out at Christmas, no matter how grim the year has been form our personal finances.