The phrase “progress is a slow process” could have been written to describe Marks & Spencer’s long-awaited turnaround of its lacklustre clothing division.
Today’s fourth-quarter trading update showed yet another decline in sales (down 1.9 per cent, or 2.7 per cent stripping out any new acquisitions or non-comparable aspects) that once again contrasted dramatically to its buoyant food business.
New(ish) boss Steve Rowe has deemed the results “unsatisfactory” and vowed to address it – just as his predecessor vowed to do and no doubt a flurry of highly-paid creative directors and marketing consultants etc etc.
The real question is why is it taking so long? Does the M&S team not read the multitude of commentary about why its fashion lines are so undesirable? Admittedly, certain newspapers that count Marks and Sparks as advertisers will be giving a kinder view of the problem, but there is certainly enough independent analysis out there.
To me it is mind-blowingly obvious that the types of clothes that would sell well at M&S would be: good quality classic workwear; basics such as polonecks and jumpers in neutral colours, not just fluoro-pink (I struggled to find a black poloneck when I was last in there, let alone one in a size 8); middle-of-the-road flattering skirts and dresses that would suit the average person (A-line rather than horrendously unforgiving bodycon). More plain, less cheap airhostess patterns. M&S is NOT Maria Katrantzou and never will be (or should be).
Taking a look at the M&S website today, I trawl through the “New In” section of the womenswear collections.
We have a leather a-line wrap skirt that looks concerningly similar to the outfit worn by serial killer Dexter from the eponymous Netflix series when he butchers his victims.
A white, tassled, lace vest top that looks like something you’d find in the New Look sale but at a far higher price (no disrespect to New Look, but it’s different markets).
Oh, and dungarees. This item in particular makes me question whether M&S has an idea – or even cares – who their customer actually is. The only people I know who would wear dungarees would be hipsters or the very young – probably bought from Topshop – surely not the key demographic for this supposedly high street staple store?
Of course this is not to say there is not a single item I’d actually buy in M&S. They do produce some nice jumpers and if I looked very, very hard, there might be the odd jacket that’s passable.
But here lies the problem. People lead busy lives and every decision you make in your leisure time is the one that you think gives you the best odds of delivering what you want. If you choose a restaurant, it’s the one you think you’re most likely to enjoy that evening. If you choose a shop, it’s the one where you think you’re most likely to find clothes you like. Why would you go to a shop where you might be able to find 2 items out of 100 that you like, when you could go to another and perhaps find 15 out of 100?
It would be a shame to see such an historic brand as M&S lose its clothing division and effectively become just another supermarket. There is still potential for a turnaround – but whether Steve Rowe will be the man to do it, I’m yet to be convinced.