Late on Wednesday afternoon my email started pinging as various BBC TV & radio stations asked me to come on air to talk about Marks & Spencer’s dismal last quarter results across M&S General Merchandise (the bulk of which is clothing) which came out yesterday morning. To be frank, after five years of a downward trajectory in GM, they could just play a tape of me talking to them from previous quarters, because what I have to say about the reasons for the lack of growth in clothing never changes.
I don’t necessarily agree with the people who say that the outgoing CEO Mark Bolland is wholly to blame (he announced yesterday that he will retire next April). It’s far too early to assess his legacy, and the admirable growth in food (up against GM’s 5.8% fall), huge investment in IT, enormous improvements in clothing sourcing, the brilliant re-imagination of its beauty offer, the phenomenally successful Rosie lingerie line, and swing towards in-house design have all happened on his watch.
But the fact remains that he hasn’t yet been able to wave a magic wand over clothing sales. Let’s face it: It can’t be easy competing in clothing on the High Street, where M&S are caught firmly between Primark owning low-cost fashion, with its mountains of cheap tat for pennies, and Zara, with its laser focus on, ahem, interpreting high fashion.
We all know that being a cradle-to-grave High Street fashion retailer means M&S has to be all things to all people: it needs to give excellent value for money and be stylish – even when being stylish means extremely different things to different people. For every London editor decrying Per Una’s jazz hands approach to fashion, there are twenty ladies out there thinking how much they like a bit of sparkle to cheer things up.
So the constant call for M&S to produce a permanent collection of perfect basics makes sense, but not if they throw the baby out with the bathwater. (There is a limit to how many white shirts and navy sweaters you can sell.) You and I might think that a perfectly cut charcoal cashmere sweater is the Holy Grail, but plenty of people would prefer it in coral or yellow.
But you can cater for all your differing customer needs if the store environment is conducive and M&S just doesn’t seem to be able to get this right. The suggestions for change that I give on air and which so many M&S shoppers tell me are always the same:
Firstly improve the store experience, and its visual signposting. Most of the time it feels like a bazaar in there: you never know what you’re going to find around the corner. More changing rooms, preferably ones with proper air conditioning (I thought I was going to pass out in Marble Arch one day this summer), and enough cabins, especially in lingerie where women often need to try on ALL the bras. A manned till in each section so I don’t end up paying for my knickers with my ready meals. Plenty of sizes (I hear 16s fly off the shelves), and regular re-stocking, especially in bras.
The visual signposting is really, truly dreadful. M&S does actually produce those beautiful chic basics that editors keep banging on about, but they are almost impossible to find. Group them together, make them a thing.
M&S also needs to have more visible faith in its fashion-led collections beyond the lookbooks for editors – we make appreciative noises at them at press day, but then those pieces hit the shop floor only to be mixed up with thousands of other everyday items.
For all of our sakes, keep each department tightly merchandised and clearly separated, so people who want sequins and handkerchief hems can find them, and people who only want grey and navy cashmere and perfectly cut white shirts don’t have to look at anything sparkly. Ever.
Equally M&S needs to stop presuming that anyone outside of London either isn’t interested in seeing fashion-led pieces in-store, or has the time and ability to hunt out pieces online. Those fantastic looks we see at the press shows are hard to find on the confusing website, and rarely, if ever, make it into the smaller local stores. Sure, they are great at ordering things in with their Browse & Collect stations, but really? Should my mother have to go into store waving tearsheets from magazines or stab at a screen in-store in order to get what she wants?
That being said, M&S is not the place we want go to for of-the-moment trend-led pieces. And they don’t sell particularly well – 7500 of that infamous pink coat against 4.3 million pairs of jeans last year. What M&S has historically done brilliantly is set its own trends: I still have their navy (imitation) slubbed silk shirt that Amber Valetta wore on the cover of Vogue in the late 90s. A piece that was clever because it was inexpensive, chic and could work in any wardrobe – unlike, say, a Pepto-Bismol pink coat or insanely unflattering beige suede skirt.
And, please, M&S, take a long hard look at swimwear. I first discovered that you never buy a printed swimsuit from M&S around my sixth birthday when three other girls on the French campsite were all wearing the same number, so why are they still doing things like an entire swim range (including harem pants FFS) in an horrendously ugly and hyper-recognisable paisley print some thirty years later?
At the moment there are only 2 – 2! swimsuits out of 51 on the website that aren’t either Secret Slimming or Post Surgery. Drop the retina-burning prints, and ubiquitous padded cups, and add in a standing collection of perfect tank swimsuits and simple bikinis in plain colours, stripes and dots. This is not rocket science.
One of the things that does constantly surprise me, as I ping from BBC Cornwall to BBC Merseyside to Five Live is the frequent suggestion that M&S might stop producing clothes to concentrate on its super successful food offer. That’s a bit like suggesting that Sainsbury’s stops selling vegetables to concentrate on clothes. It’s easy to forget that, whilst sales are down, it’s not like people aren’t buying from M&S clothing – they still sell 60million bras a year, 23 million pairs of knickers, and those 4.3 million pairs of jeans.
M&S have dropped their prices substantially over the past five years (which can’t have helped those dismal figures) – you can get three pairs of their 40 Denier Supersoft Opaque Tights for £4.00 these days, but I wonder how many people who deserted M&S for the cheaper retailers realise that?
And they’ve got a new(ish) secret weapon: Queralt Ferrer, who was poached from The Inditex Group (home of Zara and Massimo Dutti) three years ago, and was recently promoted to to be M&S’s first design director for womenswear, lingerie and beauty under Steve Rowe – who just happens to be Mark Bolland’s replacement.
I haven’t lost heart with Marks & Spencer clothing. The Limited Collection has real gems, and look at the wonderful Mallalieus Tweed coat I am wearing at top from the capsule Best of British: it’s beautifully made, lined in silk, hangs perfectly and looks as good as new eighteen months later – the kind of classic investment piece naysayers like to say M&S don’t make any more. In fact everything I have from that collection, albeit expensive by usual M&S prices, is wonderful and I’ve worn it all at the shows. (I love being able to say it’s from Marks when asked.) And my sister buys nearly all her clothes from M&S: she has a nose like a truffle hound – and the extreme patience – for finding brilliant pieces on line which I then always want too: I just wish I could find them in store as easily as she finds them online.
Watch this space…
Edited to add: Oh and do have your say below; it’s so interesting to hear your take on this. I guess the one thing I didn’t say above is that the reason we are all so interested is that, of course, we all feel passionately engaged with M&S and want it to do well…