sasha wilkins
(Wearing a Marks & Spencer Best of British tweed coat Autumn 2014)

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…

 

 

 

 

 

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43 comments

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I regularly buy bras and general clothing online from Australia and have always been impressed however, the in store experience is so different that when I was in Edinburgh last year I lasted only 15 minutes and that was because it was pouring! There are rumours M&S are coming to Australia, hopefully their offering here delivers or people will just keep buying online.

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Insightful analysis. Spot on so, please let the powers that be read this. Still miss M&S
In Vancouver but their Canadian operation was a short lived experiment.

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Thanks Nancy! LLGxx

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So, sounds like M&S ought to poach some Target (USA) talent. Alternatively, you?

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Haha! LLGxx

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This is why I read your blog Sasha. Great piece!

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Thanks Sarah! I love writing long form pieces like this: I must do it more often for LLG xx

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@Sasha Wilkins:

I couldn’t agree more that longer, highly opinionated, intelligent pieces that highlight your experience and knowledge are what I have been really missing from your blog over the past few months. Thank you and yes, please do this more (balancing obviously with the need to generate income)!

Re: M&S – I have given up even looking for clothes there now – it’s been years (5-7 I would say) since I even thought to look there. The Rosie underwear, however, has become a slight obsession. The fact that it is affordable, luxurious, silk (not horrible nylon or polyester), and has bras that actually fit (no other bras from M&S are a good fit for me) means that I regularly buy, wear and love sets. Including, joy of joys, silk camisoles that I wear throughout the year – in Summer under sheer tops and in Winter to provide a surprisingly warm layer in cold offices. It’s difficult to understand how the company who conceived of this range, flew in the face of trends of using synthetic fabrics to produce such a lovely and successful range, are not able to replicate such an approach across other ranges too.

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I think you should run for M & S CEO Sasha! All this is so true, and seems to the ‘woman on the street’ quite easily done, but why can’t they implement these things? They’ve just completely overhauled Truro, Cornwall (a large store) and it is a far, far worse layout – and I hate self service on the food too! They are relying on the public hanging on in there for things to improve, as most customers are loyal and actually have a certain affection for M and S, but for how much longer?

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I couldn’t agree more ……. who is their target market? …… I don’t think even M&S know that any more.

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Missing M&S is one of the first things French friends used to tell me about! Criticising the chain – while simultaneously willing it to succeed – seems to have become something of a national sport this side of the channel. One thing they also REALLY need to work on is their sales – what an absolute bun fight, and enough to put me off going in there AT ALL for a good two/three weeks….I think there’s a really brand comms issue too – the ad campaigns and the stores are so, so different in terms of consumer experience and messages.

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Well said!. Esp re the website. It’s painful to navigate. My local store has also reduced floorspace by 50%. What’s left is solely stocked for retired teachers (who have a particular look in this part of the world). The menswear is v civil servant. All in all, it’s a “must do better”.

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I rarely shop at M&S anymore – I get so bewildered by the layout of their stores, and the huge choice is overwhelming. It just seems like a sea of cheap clutter. I don’t know why they think they must offer t shirts/jumpers etc in every conceivable colour (does fluorescent peach suit anybody??) I used to be a regular customer: I think the last thing I bought was a grey coat, which I still adore, but that was over 5 years ago. I last went in an M&S (Newcastle upon Tyne) 2 years ago, with my mother – we wandered around for about half an hour, and decided we couldn’t be bothered. Nothing about the store persuaded us to browse, try on, or spend our money. A shame. Your article is spot on, Sasha.

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@Alexandra: Funnily enough my Mother is all for the gloriously loud t-shirts that M&S do and she is probably keeping them in business just from her buying them. Her job requires her to wear plain shirts and those ones first her perfectly but she is anything but boring in her style so those ridiculous peach shades are great for her. Not a fan myself though. (Her Italian skin also helps make her look half decent in them unlike me who is as white as a ghost)

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Really enjoyed reading this piece and couldn’t agree with you more. M&S have such goodwill from the public, people want them to get it right. Their homeware and furniture is really good and the food is fantastic but i can never find something I want in my size (14) actually in store and always come out feeling massively demoralised.

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