The UK's top-selling clothing retailer Marks & Spencer has seen shoppers halve their average spend on suits since the start of the economic downturn. 

Whereas 12-months ago customers were spending an average of GBP199 (US$287.6), they are now parting with just GBP99, M&S chief executive Sir Stuart Rose told a conference in London where he was talking about the changing retail landscape.

He said: "We're still selling the same amount of suits but of course you don't get as much money when they're GBP99.

"It's only one department in one business but clearly there's a whole pile of different behavioural change."

M&S sells 22% of all suits sold in the UK, ranging in price from GBP49 to GBP799.

Glass half-full?
Commenting on the current downturn, Sir Stuart said that the unique thing about the current recession was the speed in which it happened.

However, he said this could turn "from a glass half empty to a glass half full" should the eventual recovery be so quick.

He also said that UK government cuts in interest and VAT rates meant consumers had more disposable income but were not confident enough to spend it yet amid falling equity prices and fears about losing jobs.

"We all talk about price but at the end of the day customers are very canny at the moment. They go deal hunting and they can see value for money," he said.

Sir Stuart said retailers would need to maintain core values, keep costs and inventories under control and keep innovating to beat the downturn.

He said: "Businesses have to be robust and grit their teeth. They have to make sure that they don't cut an artery, cutting fat out is absolutely the right thing to do but cutting an artery is a dangerous thing to do."

However, he could not pinpoint with any certainty when a recovery might start, saying: "We have lots of leading executives on our board but nobody really knows where we're headed at the moment."

Credit Suisse report
Sir Stuart also responded to research by analysts at Credit Suisse that said M&S needs to change "in a fundamental way" if it is to grow sales and profit in the medium term.

Sir Stuart said: "If anybody seriously thinks that Marks & Spencer in 2009 is the same Marks & Spencer that was there in 2004, they've obviously got a very poor memory.

"Imagine what that business would be doing now in this very difficult climate? It doesn't bear thinking about. I'm very comfortable with what we're doing and I'm very comfortable with what the business's plans are."

It was announced in January that M&S' like-for-like sales fell 7.1% over the Christmas trading period, forcing it to close 27 stores and cut 1,200 jobs.

"You always have things that are wrong with your business and I'm not pretending we haven't got self-inflicted injuries, but we have taken the actions we need to take," Sir Stuart said.

"If you are the largest market shareholder by value and by volume in the UK, and clothing is the ultimate discretionary purchase, then you're bound to suffer."

The company will give a fourth quarter trading update on 31 March.

By Joe Ayling, news editor.