As sales slump at one of Britain’s biggest high street retailers, Sarah Freeman heads to Marks and Spencer to find out where it all went wrong.
Edna Cohen is 72. She lives in North Leeds and next week she’s flying out for a week in Tenerife. It’s why she nipped on the bus into the city centre to buy a few last minute holiday items, including a couple of cotton cardigans from Marks & Spencer.
“It’s just in case it gets a bit chilly in the evenings,” says the retired nurse, echoing the words that have been said in M&S aisles a thousand times before. “The clothes here are always a nice fit and you know you are getting good quality. I could get something similar elsewhere for a bit cheaper, but even at my age I want it to last.”
It’s the kind of testimony which could have been written by the M&S marketing department, but the problem for the store, a staple of the Great British high street, is that there aren’t more Ednas.
According to figures released yesterday, like-for-like sales at its clothing arm fell by almost nine per cent in the first quarter of the year and its shares which have fallen by 29 per cent over the last three months dropped again to 290.6p. New boss, Steve Rowe, who recently unveiled plans to revive the retailer’s clothing and homeware business, said the slump was in part down to shaky consumer confidence in the run up to last month’s EU Referendum.
Exactly why Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic Leave campaign meant shoppers were reluctant to spend £12.50 on a pack of cotton pyjamas or £39.50 on a pair of navy blue tapered three quarter length trousers wasn’t clear. And in the Leeds store yesterday lunchtime it was less the fallout from Brexit and more the range and layout of the store that seemed to be frustrating some customers.
With its summer sale causing some sections to resemble a WI jumble sale, there were plenty of people browsing, but not many seemed to be buying. One of those who came out empty handed was Lauren Hill. She works for a financial firm in the city and had been looking for a quick replacement for a pair of shoes which had earlier given her a blister.
“I couldn’t find anything I liked,” said the 34 year old. “I shop quite a bit in M&S, but really only its food hall. I can’t remember the last item of clothing I bought.”
Food has been one of M&S’s biggest success stories and those sales held up far better, dropping by just 0.9 per cent. It’s perhaps because whoever is in charge knows its market - people who want to feel like they are buying luxury on a middle class budget.
While it’s hard not to argue that its men’s suits, starting at £149, are good value for money and a cashmere jumper which will give you change from £100 is the right side of high end, there is no such certainty of target market in the clothing aisles.
Among the rows of dreary coloured, comfortable fit trousers there is no equivalent of its roasted mushroom and hazelnut spelt rigatoni or its lobster and Orkney crab mac and cheese.
It has tried. In a bid to widen its customer base, M&S has brought in new concessions. There was Per Una for the pre-middle-aged, Autograph for the professional woman and the designer Limited lingerie collection.
On their own each have merits, but together it makes for a confusing mix. Add to the fact its core range, the one bought by the Ednas of this world, now doesn’t much look different from the rails of clothes stocked in every out of town supermarket, and M&S has lost its way.
Its sales tactics are also starting to look a little desperate. As well as the sale, with 50 per cent off some items, yesterday the store was also offering free plastic flip flops to those who spent over £35 and in the hope of winning over some younger customers someone has had the bright idea of including speech bubbles of text talk above the children’s mannequins. YOLO anyone?
M&S’ woes have not been lost on Catherine Shuttleworth.
“It’s deeply concerning news for Steve Rowe,” says the founder of the Leeds-based retail marketing agency Savvy. “He was executive director of clothing and is continuing in that job after becoming chief executive, so he’s got to carry the can.
“There’s no question that consumer confidence has wobbled of late, but this can’t be the only reason for M&S’s performance in the past 12 weeks. I think the problem with M&S clothing, particularly the women’s side which is their key market, is that it’s just not an inspiring range.
“When Steve Rowe came in he talked about this ‘Mrs M&S’ and how they needed to appeal to her, but I still think they’re confused as to who their core shopper is. If you’re 50 it’s not like when our mums were 50, it’s a very different marketplace and there are some very good retailers in that space offering better, more interesting clothing ranges.”
Shuttleworth identifies another factor. Shopping in M&S just isn’t fun. She’s right. John Lewis has perfected the art of customer experience and with a brand new branch about to open just down the road, it’s rival should be worried.
“M&S has big, cavernous stores and they’re not laid out in a particularly customer-friendly way compared to many of their competitors,” adds Shuttleworth. “Often it’s awkward to find what you’re looking for and the whole instore experience hasn’t developed at a pace the shopper wants it to.
“There have been a few bright spots such as the Rosie Huntington-Whiteley lingerie range, but overall it’s just a bit uninspiring and talking to other women a lot of them say the same thing.
“I still think their online offer needs work as well. Compared to the likes of Zara or H&M it doesn’t drive you to buy - and that’s the problem. They’ve got to win back the hearts and minds of female shoppers because they’re critical to M&S.”
Back at the Leeds store, one of the customers just heading out into the Trinity shopping development summed it up perfectly.
“As a child M&S was thought of as being quite posh, but you would never describe it as that now,” said mum of two Sandra Brown. “I guess back then there weren’t as many shops to choose from and it had cornered the market. The problem is the high street changed, but it sometimes feels like M&S has stood still. It doesn’t really seem to know who it’s customer is.”
As Rowe and the rest of the executive team go back to the drawing board, Shuttleworth has one last piece of advice.
“It used to be the case that you couldn’t avoid popping into M&S but that’s not true any more,” she says. “They’ve got to get people through the door and make them want to go there. It’s a real crossroads. While it’s a strong business with an experienced management team, no retailer is immune to failure. Instead of talking to women they need to start listening to them and get a better understanding of how they live their lives.”