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Any news surrounding British shopping institution Marks & Spencer Group (LSE: MKS) and, more specifically, its long-troubled clothing division, is bound to attract plenty of column inches. And so it proved this week following the former FTSE 100 stalwart’s decision to enter the massively-popular sports/athleisure fashion segment.

The move on Friday to begin selling tops, leggings and trainers under the Goodmove brand could well prove a masterstroke, not only in changing shopper perceptions that the retailer is behind the times and one that only caters to more mature customers, but also giving it access to the fastest-growing clothing category across the globe.

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Getting in shape

According to research house GlobalData, the global athleisure market grew by 9% in 2019 as consumers seek the perfect blend of “comfort, performance and style.” It estimates that 20% of UK consumers purchased sports clothing or footwear specifically used for leisure activities and free time rather than to exercise in.

And what’s more, GlobalData expects sales of sports leisure goods to continue outselling the broader clothing and shoe markets beyond 2023 too.

No doubt Steve Rowe, Marks & Spencer’s chief executive and, up until recently, overseer of his former Clothing and Homewares division, has had one eye on the roaring success of JD Sports Fashion in recent years and decided to get in on the act.

JD is a firm whose focus on the athleisure market has allowed it to defy the broader gloom washing over the UK retail sector, not to mention enjoy soaring sales in its other territories of Europe, Asia and North America. Total like-for-like sports fashion sales at M&S’s FTSE 250 rival rose 12% in the six months to August 3, to give you a flavour of how well JD has been performing of late, and a whopping 10% at its UK and Ireland stores.

However…

The move is clearly a step in the right for Marks & Spencer, but it’s far too early to punch the air in celebration. Firstly, the athleisure market is ultra-competitive, dominated by the likes of JD and with other major players such as ASOS and Next also upping their exposure to this particular market.

Secondly, trying to court the sort of younger shopper the sports fashion market is primarily catered to is currently out of Marks & Sparks’ comfort zone, and may prove difficult given the retailer’s aforementioned image problems.

And finally, its new Goodmove range represent just a tiny portion of the company’s overall clothing offer, meaning that even if it proves a success, it isn’t likely to move the sales dial at group level a great deal.

Now Marks & Spencer is cheap, the business sporting a P/E ratio of just 11.5 times for the current fiscal year (to March 2020) as well as a bulging 5% dividend yield. But I want to see much more from the retailer before I part with my hard-earned cash. I’d much rather buy into some of London’s better dividend stocks right now.

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Royston Wild has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended ASOS. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.