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Marks & Spencer boss says more stores may have to close

Poor old Marks & Spencer. The company has been in a perpetual state of turnaround for the best part of twenty years.

Steve Rowe is the latest CEO trying to revive M&S's fortunes. Three years into his reign and the company still looks stuck in permanent midwinter.

Profits are up slightly but both food sales (-2.9%) and clothing sales (-1.1%) are in steady decline.

Rowe sees "very early signs of improvement", but they're not obvious to outsiders. "Sustainable, profitable growth" remains "three to five years away". Isn't it always?

Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe. Credit: PA

M&S is trying to get fit for shopping in the digital age.

The business still has too many stores in unattractive locations, a website that is "well behind the best" of its rivals, a supply chain that is "well short of state of the art" and a distribution centre that struggles to handle peak demand. These are not trifling problems.

Change is underway.

The senior management team has been replaced, IT systems are being over-hauled, clothing ranges simplified and freshened up.

Twenty-nine high street stores have closed, another 71 will shut before 2020, although M&S is still refusing to name most of them. And M&S may not stop there. "I'm not going to promise that I'll stop at 100 [store closures] and say job done," Rowe warns.

M&S is deeply troubled but it is not in trouble, more a gentle but continuous decline.

Sir Philip Green tried purchasing M&S in 2004. Credit: PA

A business that was once a morsel for a monarch has become less important in the digital age.

You may recall that in 2004 Sir Philip Green tried unsuccessfully to buy M&S for £9 billion. The company's stock market value today is less than £5 billion - around the same as ASOS.

M&S is still healthily profitable and remains the most popular clothing retailer in Britain, but even that crown looks set to slip. M&S has been losing market share for more than two decades, as it closes stores so it cuts both costs and sales. Primark is heir to the throne.

The growth of online competition and the march of the discounters continues and M&S is diminished.