• Sales at apparel division have declined for last four years
  • 27-year veteran Rowe replaced former CEO Bolland this month

Marks & Spencer Group Plc’s new Chief Executive Officer Steve Rowe will continue to manage the U.K. retailer’s general merchandise division as he seeks to arrest a four-year decline in clothing sales.

Rowe’s first major decision since taking over as CEO this month will see him maintain oversight of the department he’s run since July. The 27-year company veteran will “continue to lead the team for the foreseeable future. He sees general merchandise as the No. 1 priority for M&S and is personally committed to getting it right,” an M&S spokeswoman said by e-mail.

Despite being the U.K. market leader, M&S’s clothing business is stuck in a rut compared with rivals like Next Plc and Primark, which have done a better job capturing younger consumers. The sales slump dogged the five-year tenure of former boss Marc Bolland, and to help turn things around Rowe hired British fashionista Alexa Chung to create a new collection while bringing the company’s womenswear, lingerie and beauty teams together into one group.

“He was only given the job as head of general merchandise a short time ago and obviously doesn’t think there is anybody else who can take it on at the moment,” Maureen Hinton, director at retail research firm Conlumino, said by phone.

M&S, which gets about 40 percent of its revenue from the general-merchandise unit, is expected by analysts to report a further drop in same-store clothing sales when it releases fourth-quarter results April 7.

The stock rose 0.7 percent to 410.2 pence at 2:44 p.m. in London.

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