M&S on the up

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As Marks & Spencer reports its best clothing sales in three years, Chris Bond asks whether the retail giant is back on track?

IF a week is a long time in politics, then a couple of months can feel like an eternity in the dizzying world of retail.

You only have to look at some of the big names that have disappeared from our high streets in recent years to appreciate the fine margins that exist between success and failure.

Back in January it was all doom and gloom for Marks & Spencer. This cornerstone of the British retail industry had just reported dire trading results for its general merchandise arm, which includes fashion, after it was hit by online delivery problems and unseasonable weather conditions in the run up to Christmas.

It was the 14th consecutive quarter the figure had fallen and had fashion critics rushing to ask where it had all gone wrong for this famous high street institution. M&S bosses said mild weather in October and November impacted on winter clothing sales, and unprecedented Black Friday demand combined with “unsatisfactory performance” at its distribution centre in the Midlands put delays of up to five days on online deliveries.

Speaking at the time, consumer expert Kate Hardcastle said the company had forgotten the “customer is queen” and that the company needed to “completely re-energise” womenswear if it was to get back on track.

“If you look back at the 90s and early 2000s Marks & Spencer was a powerhouse, the flagship of British retail. You waited for their advert at Christmas and the Marks name carried a seal of approval,” she said. “Your M&S’ is their tagline but it isn’t anymore, and that’s the problem - it’s so far removed from what the customer wants.”

It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing M&S boss Marc Bolland would have wanted to hear. But fast forward three months and yesterday’s announcement that the company had seen a 0.7 per cent rise in like-for-like sales at its general merchandise arm must have been music to his ears.

Bolland also highlighted “high single-digit” like-for-like sales growth at both its upmarket Autograph and Limited clothing brands. The figures are better than expected which is good news for the store with customers responding positively to changes in both style and product quality.

If it’s been something of a back to basics exercise for M&S then the chain has been boosted by sales of its 1970s-style suede skirts which have been particularly strong. Retro fashion has been around for a long time now but get it right and you can start a trend, rather than simply following one.

M&S has a long-standing reputation for showcasing British craftsmanship and customer loyalty, However, the retail world has changed dramatically over the past decade. Online shopping has been a game-changer and has coincided with the emergence of new brands and labels eager to muscle in on M&S’s lucrative target market, namely the over-35s in terms of fashion.

There’s no doubt that M&S - which began life as a haberdashers’ stall at Kirkgate Market - considers fashion to be at the heart of its business. Unfortunately, the M&S customer has been increasingly less convinced about the fashion on offer, at least until now.

It has had to contend with the re-emergence of Next, its main rival in terms of size and share, as well as the more niche stores such as Mint Velvet, which is targeting the 40-plus shoppers very successfully at the higher end of the market, and brands like Tu at Sainsburys which is chipping away at the cheaper end.

But it’s not just about the clothes themselves. One of the criticisms aimed at it by customers was that too much was crammed into stores which turned shopping for clothes into a bit of a bun fight.

M&S is not a “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” sort of store and it’s something that bosses have taken on board by taking time to improve the layout and making the shopping experience a more pleasurable one.

The story of M&S is a compelling one. It rose from humble beginnings to become an international brand and has been a pillar of our shopping experience for generations.

From mini skirts and flares, to power dresses and tweed jackets it has dressed men, women and children in the countless trends that have come and gone over the years.

It has deflected all the slings and arrows of outrageous fads that fashion can throw in its direction. It might not please all the people, all of the time, but maybe it shouldn’t try. In a world that feels like it’s changing at an ever accelerating pace, perhaps the fact that it is still here and flourishing after all these years is an achievement in itself.

HOW M&S STARTED IN LEEDS

Marks & Spencer started out life as a haberdashers at Kirkgate Market in 1884. It was opened by Michael Marks and famously had a sign next to it saying: “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny.”

* An array of children’s gifts were available with paper games sets, miniature dolls and yo-yos among some of the most popular gifts.

* In March 2013, the company returned to its roots and opened a stall at the same market where Michael Marks opened his first Penny Bazaar stall.

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