Marks & Spencer (LSE: MKS) has long been a quintessential representative of the British high street, and its shares sit in the portfolios of many small private investors. However, the performance of those shares has been lacklustre for a long time. Indeed, they were trading higher than today 20 years ago.

Plenty of top retail executives have had a go at improving M&S’s fortunes over the past two decades, but all have failed to set the company on a path to sustained long-term growth. Brief periods of revival have always fizzled out.

Has the time come to dump the stock? And should you invest instead in another iconic British asset, which is almost as old as the venerable M&S — namely, the country’s most popular attraction outside London?

Same old

M&S’s Food division has done remarkably well in recent years. The company has been cute in getting its Simply Food brand into lucrative high-footfall areas, such as transport hubs, and I see it’s also just signed a deal with British Airways to supply food on its flights.

Food store openings are continuing apace, which is just as well, because like-for-like food sales turned negative in the latest quarter — something of a concern. By far the biggest concern, though, is the long-persistent poor performance of the Clothing & Home division. The latest quarter saw yet more dire numbers, with sales down 8.3%.

On the face of it M&S’s shares at 317p are cheap, trading on 10.4 times current-year forecast earnings and with a prospective dividend yield of 6.6%. However, I’m not convinced that the latest incumbents of the boardroom can succeed, where their predecessors have failed. I think two decades of underperformance is sufficient to merit selling the shares and looking elsewhere for long-term returns.

View from the pier

Premium bars company Eclectic Bars did a reverse takeover of Brighton Pier (LSE: PIER) in April, the £18m acquisition being funded from an £8.5m equity placing and a £12m five-year term loan from Barclays Bank.

The enlarged AIM-listed group today released annual results for its financial year ended 26 June. At a share price of 134p (little changed on the day), the company is valued at £42m.

The premium bars division of 19 sites around the country targets “sophisticated students midweek and stylish over 21s and professionals at the weekend”. The business is back on track, following various management actions, after a difficult time the previous year.

Group net operating cash flow was up 27% to £1.9m, with Brighton Pier contributing only nine weeks. For the current year, the board expects the cash flow from the Pier business to be “transformative” for the group.

Analyst forecasts have earnings advancing around 75%, putting the company on a P/E of 18 and a highly attractive P/E-to-growth ratio of 0.25. Management has ambitions to expand in time with further strategic acquisitions of “experiential leisure and entertainment destinations”.

The post-acquisition balance sheet is decent with strong cash flows to come, and I like the look of the business. It could be a great long-term growth prospect and the shares appear very buyable to me at their current level.

Another top prospect

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G A Chester has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.