M&S – What’s the Problem?

So what’s to be done with a problem like M&S? The great British institution, or (as the press love to call it) – the troubled retailer, simply doesn’t seem to be able to get anything right in the fashion arena. But is it really that wrong, is it really all doom and gloom?

I can remember when M&S turned their first £1bn profit; it’s fair to say they were in danger of believing their own immortality at that stage and were certainly nearer the arrogant end of the spectrum than modest. That was back in the 90s – they’re not suffering due to that misplaced confidence now, but what is causing them to struggle so much?

It certainly doesn’t help that the press have labelled the retailer as “troubled”. It’s funny that once a retailer stops being troubled, the media don’t seem to mention how down they had been on them – in some bizarre way it’s as if the press were responsible for their turn around. You don’t see Tesco being referred to as “former troubled retailer” – the press just love to have bad news but don’t seem that keen to trumpet success, or is that just good old British reserve? Nonetheless, once you have a bad name it’s hard to shake it off, you can’t make somebody like you against their wishes and you can’t simply run a beautiful ad campaign and have everything go back to normal.

You’d like to think M&S are listening to their customers. The food offer is an absolute joy, the target market is clear and they deliver time and time again on value, range and quality. They are not the cheapest, but that isn’t the point – people go there because they know they will get a good quality product in a clean, modern environment that makes the customer feel wanted. So how can food be so right and fashion so wrong, are they not the same customer?

The non-food, or clothing as customers like to call it, is where it’s all going wrong. This is surely down to buying. Quite simply customers are not being given what they want and are going to the competition, be it throw away fashion brands such as Primark, Zara and H&M, or to John Lewis who manage to mix own label with brands successfully. Our head of creative proudly showed me his John Lewis reefer jacket this winter, could you imagine someone in the agency world doing that with an M&S product? JLP has managed to lure younger customers and grow older with them, why aren’t M&S tapping into them like JLP has done?

Being a buyer must surely be the hardest job in retail, but clearly this is where the heart of the problem lies for M&S. I barely know anyone under the age of 60 that shops for clothes at M&S, apart from their great quality underwear which still has a loyal following. Own label shouldn’t be a handicap but the very essence of an offer, I bought a suit of theirs in the 80’s but wouldn’t dream of doing so now. If the buying was right, then the super slick marketing would be delivering improved sales, but it isn’t.

In short, if M&S get their buying right and speak to the right audience in the right language then surely there’s hope. What they don’t need is to employ anybody other than a very good research agency for the next few months.

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