Out with the old: M&S's CEO Marc Bolland

Out with the old: M&S’s CEO Marc Bolland

I was at the checkout in Meadowhall’s M&S Food Hall when my iPhone pinged to announce the arrival of the day’s newsfeed and the grim news that came with it: third-quarter sales of general merchandise at Marks & Spencer’s were down by 5.8% — that’s the 17th out of 18 consecutive quarters — and its CEO Marc Bolland would be subsequently stepping down in April.

Looking around at the bustling shop floor (and having second thoughts about the packet of Percy Pigs I had just chucked into my basket) it was hard to hard to reconcile the news with the scene in front of me. But then food, which makes up for more than 50% of group revenue, isn’t M&S’s problem — it’s the fashion.

“Everybody I knows shops at M&S for food but the same can’t be said for its clothes,” says Rita Britton who has been a loyal customer for as long as she can remember. “The problem with M&S is that they are snatching at straws; too busy looking at what Next is doing and thinking about grabbing a slice of that particular cake. It’s obvious that the brand has lost its way. At what point it happened, I couldn’t say, but it was certainly a while ago.”

It’s true that M&S has been (and still is) going through an identity crisis (“There has been so much reinvention at M&S that we’re all a bit confused”) and that its High Street rival Next has managed to capture the imagination of the British shopper where M&S has failed. And yet the struggles at one of our most beloved British institutions have not been without their reasons.

Looking at the stats, M&S was losing its market leader status well before 2005, the year that the 132-year-old retailer’s share of the UK clothing market measured 10.7% — that’s nearly half of the 20% that M&S accounted for two decades previously. Fast forward 10 years to 2015 and M&S’s share of the UK clothing market had dropped a further 2 points to 8.7%.

In with the new: Steve Rowe, currently M&S's executive director of general merchandise

In with the new: Steve Rowe, currently M&S’s executive director of general merchandise

And yet within the space of those three decades there have been irrevocable changes to the British socio-economic and fashion/retail landscape. Firstly, the democratisation of high fashion has created a hunger for the disposable (Primark) and the faddish (TopShop). Secondly, technological advancements have changed the way that we buy clothes (online) and digest fashion journalism/imagery (proven by the fact that you are currently reading this blog). Thirdly, this has all been funded by access to easy credit, creating a dangerous cocktail of reckless spending habits and unrealistic consumer aspirations. (What my elders would call ‘cutting your cloth accordingly’.) Suddenly there was something ‘better’ out there than a M&S flame-proof nightie.

So, struggling to compete in an era of fast fashion and intense online competition, can we admonish M&S for not performing as well as it did 30 years ago when every Briton — from my gran (a Labour card-holding retired cleaner) to Margaret Thatcher (the then Conservative Prime Minister) — looked to the St Michael label to provide them with stylish, well-made clothes? “Yeah, I think that we can,” says Britton. “There is fashion and there is style, and M&S have tried to go down the fashion route when they should focus on style. Their customers should be proud to say ‘Oh, I’ve had this coat or this sweater for years; it’s from M&S’. You can’t say that if you’re too busy making things that are going to be off-trend as quickly as they were on-trend, can you?”

And yet M&S has enjoyed some success from courting fashion celebrities and editors of glossy magazines, despite the fact that we all know it’s a romance that can never last. The model/actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley helped shift 2.4million items of lingerie when she put her name to a M&S underwear range, and a M&S suede skirt worn by TV presenter/model Alexa Chung was a noteworthy hit selling 4500 units within the first six weeks it went on sale.

Courting fashion: M&S's suede skirt hat Alexa Chung made a hit

Courting fashion: Alexa Chung’s favourite M&S suede skirt

But the feeling amongst M&S’s core clients (made up of women who don’t look like a 20-something model or work at Vogue) is that their needs are being sidelined for editorial-worthy get-ups aimed at those who aren’t likely to stay loyal to the brand. “You want certain things like beautiful knitwear and underwear from M&S, not the sparkly, sex-pot party dress or the trendy statement piece,” agrees Britton. “I have had great underwear from M&S in the past but if you go into M&S today their underwear doesn’t even fit in with the clothes that they are selling. You’ll see double-E bras in bright orange with pink flowers on them next to elasticated-waist slacks.”

As a man, I have no right to comment on the state of M&S’s female underpinnings (fact: M&S sells 60million pairs of knickers and 23million bras a year) but what I can say is that their male underwear looks like it’s been modelled on Brian Murphy from George & Mildred. (Paisley printed Y-fronts, anyone?)

Perhaps even more confusing/disappointing is that M&S feels like it has to stock specialist/luxury beauty brands such as Nuxe, Ren and Dr. Hauschka (Boots and John Lewis territory, surely) and furniture/homewares that are undistinguishable from the same generic offerings at DFS and Laura Ashley.

Worryingly, these are the product areas from which the incoming CEO, 47-year-old Steve Rowe, comes from. Currently M&S’s executive director of general merchandise, Rowe is 27-year veteran of the brand, having started out at the age of 15 at M&S Croydon as a Saturday boy in the men’s knitwear department. (His father ran the food business and the procurement division until his departure in 2000.) As such, Rowe is considered a safe pair of hands by M&S big wigs but he still has a lot to prove to his customers; some of whom have been keen to vent their frustration.

“I could weep when I see what is in stores today. Where is the originality? The flair? the newness? The good taste?” blasted Muriel Conway at the annual M&S meeting last year. (Conway knows a thing or two about the business having designed ladies fashion from the early 1970s to the late 1990s for an M&S supplier.) “Lord Sieff [one of the brand’s most successful chairmen] must be turning in his grave. He used to say to me ‘the day you lose your core customers is the day you lose your business’, and he was right. Not only have you lost your core customers, you have alienated them.”

Act 1: Annie Leibovitz’s ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign for M&S S/S 2014

Act 1: Annie Leibovitz’s ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign for S/S 2014

Britton takes stock of Conway’s comments. “I think that one of those core customers is the woman who shops here with me. That woman should be able to buy her staple pieces from M&S — beautiful underwear, good quality basic knitwear and casual tops — that work well with the more luxurious investment pieces from Nomad Atelier.”

As the day on which M&S made its woeful announcement drew on, so the news reports became more and more explicit about the problems troubling the shop that was first established in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer; one of them being that the daughter rarely wants to shop for clothes at the place as her mother. “If M&S had the right product that wouldn’t be the case,” says Britton. “I have always said that successful design is not about age but about mentality.”

It’s a problem that M&S has ben trying to address in its advertising campaigns. Who can forget its ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign for Spring/Summer 2014 shot by American Vogue snapper Annie Leibovitz and starring a cast of Britain’s most inspiring women, from actress Helen Mirren and singer Ellie Goulding to engineer Roma Agrawal and Doreen Lawrence, the British-Jamaican campaigner famous as the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence?  Leibovitz’s imagery offered a utopian picture of a multi-ethnic, multi-talented, multi-aged Britain where every woman looked amazing courtesy of M&S.

Annie Leibovitz's 'Leading Ladies' campaign for M&S S/S14

Act 2: Annie Leibovitz’s ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign for S/S 2014

“Yeah, but did the clothes on the shop floor stack up to those in the pictures?” questions Britton, “M&S did another slick advertising campaign this Christmas where they featured a double-faced coat which made you think ‘Bloody hell, that’s nice’. But when you got close-up to it, it didn’t feel as good as it looked in the advert.”

It’s that same coat which brings up another constant gripe against M&S: colour. “Why would you do a winter coat in cream and tan  — I mean, how long is that going to stay cream for, when you’ve got kids tagging along and you’re dragging yourself in and out of the car? — when you could have done it in black and grey? Even when it comes to their cashmere jumpers, the colours are all a bit ‘off’. And they feel a bit thin. Why do cashmere at all if you’re not going to do it with ‘wow’ factor?”

(At the time of posting this blog I checked out the cashmere jumper colours for myself and Britton is right: they are a saccharine-sour mix of apricot-cream, cyclamen-pink and sulphur-yellow; more the colour palette of an Easter bonnet parade than contemporary cool.)

Within all this talk of double-faced coats, cashmere sweaters and beautiful underwear there is obviously the desire for something comforting and wholesome from M&S; the sartorial equivalent of a good roast chicken. “Yeah, I think that’s exactly what we want. And as such M&S should be looking at what The White Company are doing instead of Next,” says Britton. “When I was 19-years-old I can remember going into M&S and buying two sweater dresses in lambswool: one in a very pale camel and the other in grey. I wore them with a big elasticated wasp-belt. That dress was capable of being worn by any aged woman and I wore mine for years and years. In fact, it would still look good today.”

Are we in M&S or in Ann Summers? (M&S Manchester, January 2016)

How did we end up in Ann Summers? M&S Manchester, January 2016

So what does Britton think that M&S needs to do? “I think that they need a new style team more than they need a star designer. Having said that they could almost do with pulling somebody in like Paul Smith who does that British classic-with-a-twist thing, and whose menswear and womenswear collections are equally as strong. But then again, Paul Smith is not a designer per se in the sense that he is only improving and re-styling the wheel, not reinventing it.”

And isn’t that exactly what we want from M&S; a contemporary take on British classics? Because while there is a real sense of Britishness in the advertising campaigns and the food, it is sorely lacking in the clothes. “They used to have big notices in the shops saying ‘99% of our goods are British made’,” says Britton. “If making 99% of goods here in the UK today means sticking an extra tenner onto the price then so be it because those who want dirt cheap clothes will go to Primark anyway.”