M&S: no ordinary downturn
Is Marks & Spencer the true story on the high street or a bit worse?
The story it tells is certainly pretty dire.
The famous like-for-like sales, which show sales per square foot in older stores, are truly horrible - with general merchandise 8.9% lower in the 13 weeks to December 27.
However, it's probably the trend to unadjusted, overall sales that's more disturbing.
For the group as a whole, these were 1.2% lower, thanks to a particularly strong performance outside the UK and on the internet.
But here's the ghastly bit: overall UK sales were down 3.4%, including the benefit of Marks' well-publicised and unprecedented promotional days.
Clothing was the worst performer, with sales 6.5% lower. Food was just 1.1% down - which represents a modest recovery.
Also, the profit margin of Britain's largest clothing retailer was significantly lower, because Marks has been forced to slash prices.
Sir Stuart Rose, Marks's chairman, expects the bad times to last at least a year.
So he's closing 27 less profitable stores, shedding 1,230 jobs and making the pension scheme less generous. He's also taking a knife to investment, with capital spending falling from £700m this year to no more than £400m next year.
This is pretty savage stuff, designed to keep the group profitable during the worst high street downturn for almost 30 years.
Marks' profits this year are expected to slump around 45% to a bit over £600m.
So the days of laurels and awards for Marks' well-known executive chairman probably feel to him like a lovely distant memory.
Update 0839: It's rare that Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of Next, makes public utterances. And perhaps today we know why, because he certainly stirred things up a bit this morning in his Today interview, when he criticised the government's emergency cut in VAT.
This reduction for a year in the VAT rate, from 17.5% to 15%, will cost £12bn. It's supposed to help groups like Next, Britain's second biggest fashion chain, by encouraging all of us to spend a bit more.
But Wolfson said that the expensive VAT reduction was a mistake, that it was a waste of taxpayers' money, and that the Treasury would have been far better to cut income taxes if it wanted to encourage spending.
A well-known Conservative supporter, Wolfson also raised serious concerns about the government's central economic policy, of spending more and cutting taxes to combat the contraction in our economy. He's very worried about the consequential ballooning of public-sector debt - and he believes that, like Next, Gordon Brown could do more to make the public sector more efficient.
Quite rightly, he was at pains to point out that the difficulties on the high street are a recession, but not Armageddon - and that groups like his and like M&S remain solidly profitable.
In which context it's as well to point out that Marks has managed expectations among its investors of what to expect from its results in a characteristically astute way.
Although its trading update was hardly uplifting stuff, its shares have risen a smidgeon this morning.