By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Marks & Spencer <MKS.L> is expected to report another fall in underlying sales in both clothing and food in its Christmas quarter, while the major grocers are forecast to show a slowdown in growth as the discounters march on.
Expectations for the UK retail sector going into Christmas were low after industry data showed the largest November drop in shopper numbers for a decade and Sports Direct <SPD.L> and Primark <ABF.L> issued downbeat comments about trading.
A huge profit warning from online fashion group ASOS <ASOS.L> on Dec. 17 then routed share prices.
Music retailer HMV added to the gloom, collapsing into administration shortly after Christmas.
Clothing chain Next <NXT.L> is the only major listed retailer to have reported on Christmas trading so far. It sprang a positive surprise with a late surge in online demand offsetting steep falls in sales in stores.
Analysts reckon Next is likely to prove the exception among non-food retailers as the sector battles a perfect storm of rising costs, uncertainty in the economy around Brexit and the structural shift online. Unlike its rivals, Next has a longstanding policy of not discounting before Boxing Day.
Analysts have highlighted a disconnect between supportive economic factors - with consumers' real earnings growing and employment levels high - and an apparent reluctance to spend, partly due to uncertainty over Britain's departure from the European Union at the end of March.
Britain's economic growth slowed to a crawl at the end of last year and the housing market is stalling, according to data published on Friday, less than three months before Brexit day.For M&S', Britain's most famous stores group, analysts are on average forecasting a fall of 1.6 percent in like-for-like clothing and homeware sales for its third quarter to Dec. 28, mirroring the previous quarter's decline.
Analysts are also forecasting a 2.5 percent drop in like-for-like food sales, partly reflecting management's moves to make the business more competitive by cutting prices. M&S will update on Thursday.
After over a decade of failed turnaround programmes, the 135-year-old retailer is now targeting sustainable, profitable growth in three to five years by shutting 100 stores by 2022 as it strives to make at least a third of clothing and home sales online. In November it warned that sales were unlikely to improve any time soon.
On Thursday Tesco <TSCO.L>, Britain's biggest retailer, will publish data for its third quarter to Nov. 24, as well as the six weeks to Jan. 5. Analysts forecast UK like-for-like sales growth of 0.5 to 1.0 percent for the third quarter, picking up to 1.0 to 1.5 percent for the latter period. Growth was 2.5 percent in the second quarter.
Sainsbury's <SBRY.L>, which in April agreed a 7.3 billion pound takeover of rival Asda <WMT.N>, will on Wednesday update on trading in the third quarter to Jan. 5. Analysts are on average forecasting a like-for-like sales fall of 0.2 percent versus a 1.0 percent rise in the previous quarter.
Morrisons <MRW.L>, the number four player, reports on the nine weeks to Jan. 6 on Tuesday, with analysts forecasting retail like-for-like sales up 0.5 percent, versus growth of 1.3 percent in its third quarter.
A theme for the period will likely be a further shift in market share to the German owned discounters Aldi and Lidl. Aldi will report on Monday and industry data from market researcher Kantar Worldpanel on Tuesday will provide another guide to the big four's performance.
A raft of other UK retailers are also due to report next week, including struggling department store Debenhams <DEB.L>, baker Greggs <GRG.L>, discounter B&M <BMEB.L> and Mothercare <MTC.L>.
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Keith Weir)