Marks & Spencer is to bolster its international business by opening its first store in China, the retailer has announced.
M&S chief executive Stuart Rose said its first outlet in the fast-growing Chinese market - likely to be in Shanghai - would open in the next financial year, which starts in March.
The group will enter China on a wholly-owned rather than franchise basis and has also signalled its intention to accelerate its growth in India, where M&S currently has ten stores.
The retailer's cautious comments about the Chinese move - "growing on a site by site basis in order to manage our exposure and risk" - follow memories of M&S's hasty retreat from the world stage five years ago as its UK business waned. In the mid-nineties, there was no sign of the disaster to come. M&S made record profits of more than £1 billion in 1997 and 1998, but the figure dived as low as £145.5 million in 2001 as customers were put off by dreary clothes and depressing stores.
Up until late 2002, the company traded in 30 countries worldwide following an expansion programme which began in the 1970s. But the Western European stores were closed in 2001, just two years after the last stores in Canada were sold off.
The American venture, the Kings supermarkets chain, acquired in 1988, was sold at a loss in 2002 to allow bosses to focus on the company's ailing UK operations.
The preceding year, M&S had sold the Brooks Brothers chain to Retail Brand Alliance for $225 million (£107.8 million), a third of the $750 million (£359.4 million) it paid for the upscale clothing business in 1988.
The UK operation was saved at the expense of the overseas sales, which were accompanied by a radical overhaul of the brand, including refurbishing shops and bringing in new fashion and food ranges.
Under a turnaround led by Mr Rose M&S announced a 28 per cent increase in annual profits to £966 million in May.
In recent years the company has turned to franchises to extend the brand without risking shareholders' cash. It now has 257 franchise stores in 36 countries and Mr Rose said "we want to do more of it".
Of the M&S franchised stores, 65 are in the Asia-Pacific region, 60 in Europe, 45 in Central Europe with the balance in central Asia and the Middle East. The group also has directly owned stores in places including Hong Kong, Gibraltar and Ireland.