Solving a problem like Marks and Spencer

I read with interest a story in the Business section of The Sunday Times last week that  looked at the challenges facing Marks and Spencer (M&S): Bolland fashions bid for survival, timed to coincide with this week’s results.

Interesting on a number of levels. First, as a customer of Marks and Spencer, I am personally interested. Second, as M&S is such a high profile UK business, we should all be interested. And third, on a professional level, Latimer Appleby is interested: the story combines retailing and market research (The Sunday Times did some of its own focus group research).


The Marks and Spencer story

The M&S story is of course something that many of us like to follow. I’m not sure if it is that thing of wanting to see the big guys brought back to earth, or just a desire to follow such a high profile business, but the M&S saga continues to deliver, to use a common cliche: it’s the story that keeps on giving.

And what a story. There are so many twists and turns; my favourite gaff is probably the “I’m normal” TV advert: do you remember the naked size-16 model running up a hill? I wonder how that get through focus group testing.

Marks and Spencer advert still
I’m naked, oops I mean, normal!


After, what is now, several years of turnaround, and substantial improvements seem as elusive as ever. Each season the M&S team unveil a new fashion range, and every year it seems to disappoint. The long running theme of under performance continues: why?

We can always cite competition (H&M, Topshop, Primark et al); however, surely M&S has always had competition.

Personally, my wardrobe shows that M&S has a lower share of my clothing purchases than at any time in the last three decades. As someone on the ‘wrong side of 49’ (just!), you would have thought I’d fall in to one of M&S’s male target markets, particularly based on my previous buying behaviour. Based on my recent experiences in M&S stores, there seems to be a quite fundamental problem.


My in store experience

Visiting a very large Marks and Spencer store outside Bournemouth at Christmas, I was struck by the contrast between the food hall (heaving) and the fashion floor (deserted). On a recent visit to the Brighton store, I noted that men’s wear section was as uninteresting as it has recently been. The plethora of sub brands, some of which I understand are to be killed off, does the store no favours at all. So in sports speak, M&S is a retailer of two halves (food: good, fashion: bad).

The Sunday Times conducted a focus group with 20 women aged 17-85. Yes, you did read that correctly: not so much a focus group, more a focus gathering! NB We’d certainly not recommend a group of that size to our own clients. As to the composition of the group, although all were core M&S shoppers, the age range is, to say the least, huge. Our approach is to gather together people of a similar profile; I do wonder whether 17 and 70 year olds have anything like the same fashion priorities, let alone an 85 year old. The upshot was that on a scale of 1 (‘awful’) to 5 (‘perfect’), the average score given for various items from the new autumn/winter range was 2: in plain English, ‘poor’.

Without doubt, members of the top team at M&S are very bright people, but it does seem that the extent of management comings and going is more akin to a football club than to a major retail institution. Are the challenges just so enormous that senior management are always bound to fail?

The article highlighted the problems of maintaining brand consistency with such a large and diverse property estate. Comparing a full price store with an outlet store, which is what The Sunday Times article did, whilst being a valid point to make about overall brand image, missed the fact that most shoppers accept that outlet stores will tend to have more end-of-lines, seconds and last year’s fashions, and that they may more closely a jumble sale than a regular department store.


Fixing the product

For me, there are two core problems, in addition to the poor fashion offer, namely:

1) range, including quality; and

2) positioning.

What M&S used to offer was basic clothing (or classic clothing) that lasted. You knew with M&S that, although you paid a little more for something that maybe wasn’t high fashion, at least it was well made and it would last. Not any more. Product quality has taken a tumble; actually, this started to happen a few years ago, but it is only now that senior management are publicly acknowledging it. The material in ladies’ shirts is nearly impossible to iron. Jeremy Paxman’s widely reported comments about the poor design of M&S underwear were made in 2008, and I’m not sure things have changed much since!

As the article concluded, it may be that all the initiatives count for nought if, in fact, the prime problem is with the core offer. Should M&S chase the high fashion shoppers? Should  it compete with premium brands? Should it take on Topshop and Primark more aggressively? It is unlikely that they can do all things at once; the solution might be just to do one thing really well.

No doubt there will be more to come from M&S and, like with a great TV programme, I avidly await the next series.

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