Updates from M&S and WH Smith


Confidence returned to stock markets yesterday following better numbers from the US and China. The FTSE 100 climbed 74 points to 6,387, up +1.17%. Easyjet was the biggest gainer, up +6.65% while Fresnillo saw the biggest sell-off, down -2.29%.

Overnight, the Nikkei 225 surged +1.60% to 13,550 while the Hang Seng climbed +0.84% to 22,223.

First up, mixed news from M&S in a quarterly trading update. Sales climbed slightly in the first three months of the year with like-for-like sales nudging +0.6% higher. It's a tale of two businesses though: clothes and general merchandising sales sank -3.8% while food sales climbed +4.0%.

The dismal general merchandise numbers could have been worse. But M&S is under increasing competition from the likes of Next and Debenhams, not to mention, at the lower end, Primark.

"We are working hard on improving our performance in general merchandise," says chief exec Marc Bolland, "and despite difficult trading conditions, we made progress in our operational execution." The pressure from investors on Bolland remains considerable.

Next, a six-month trading update from WH Smith. Total Group profit before tax climbs +5% to £69m (2012: £66m). There's stronger performance from Travel with trading profit up +7% to £29m (2012: £27m) and growth from the high street with trading profit up +2% to £48m (2012: £47m).

Earnings per share up +11% to 44.2p (2012: 40.0p) while the interim dividend of 9.4p is up +13% on the year before. Group total sales remain down -4% with like-for-like (LFL) sales down -5% however.

"We have delivered another strong performance," said chief exec Kate Swann in an upbeat statement, "across the Group with earnings per share up +11% and the interim dividend increased by +13%. Both businesses continue to increase profit year on year, despite the challenging economic environment."

Lastly, an update from personal care player PZ Cussons for the period 30 January to 10 April. Performance is in line with management expectations while the financial position of the Group remains "strong". In the UK its core brands of Imperial Leather, Carex and Original Source have performed well, PZ claims.

PZ's beauty division turned in a decent performance with growth in international markets compensating for a tougher trading environment in the UK, it claims. Sales of St Tropez in the US have continued to grow while the Polish performance has also been strong in homecare and personal care.

However Nigeria, its biggest market, remains a worry. "Social unrest in the north continues and whilst the environment in the rest of the country is calmer, the potential for removal of the remainder of the fuel subsidy remains," says the company.