Rumours that Marks and Spencer is to announce the sale of some of its underperforming stores next month have been quashed a company spokesperson.

The BBC reported today that the retailer, which has 297 stores in prime sites throughout Britain, is deliberating on whether to include former Littlewoods outlets in the sale. Marks and Spencer acquired the stores in a £192m deal three years ago.

A company representative said: "The reports are pure speculation. It is true that Marks and Spencer - like most retailers - continues to consider marginally profitable stores, but no announcement is to be made next month."

Analyst Richard Perks of Retail Intelligence said that the rumour has been in circulation for some time with the number of closures ranging from 20 to 40. The rumour first surfaced following a halving of the company's profits in the past three years. Profits at M&S have plummeted from £1.1bn in 1997 to £655.7m last year.

The collapse is mostly attributable to the troubled clothing sector, but M&S's food business is now also a cause for concern - profits have fallen from a 1996 high of £247m to £137m last year.

M&S's share price has fallen by a quarter in the past two weeks, and some analysts say that it will fall further, making the retail giant more vulnerable to a takeover bid.

Richard Perks disagrees: "Anyone who considers bidding for Marks and Spencer will need very deep pockets. The moment a hostile bid is announced, M&S's share price will recover.

The BBC said that M&S is now trading barely above the break-up value of the company amd the M&S name is worth nothing - its present capitalisation is only equal to the value of its physical assets.

"Everything went wrong for Marks and Spencer at the same time - it bought the Littlewoods stores and had the disastrous all grey and black season, but it is still the dominant retailer on the high street by a long way."

Other analysts are not so optimistic. Senior management changes last month have further destroyed confidence in the company: "It's got pretty much a new management team which has little clothing experience and you'd therefore have to say confidence levels are at an all time low in the stock," one analyst commented on the appointment of former head of Kingfisher's electrical unit Roger Holmes as chief of M&S's UK retail after Peter Salsbury resigned.

The company's interim results are expected on November 7.