THE SIN OF IRRELEVANCE

In this blog I revisit the case of Marks and Spencer. I hasten to add that I do not have a phobia about this retailer; as I have featured it in previous blogs of mine. I do so because in many ways M&S represents a barometer of how many previously large and successful retailers have been performing in recent years.

When I started to teach retailing in the early 1980’s M&S was held up as one of the shining stars of the retail firmament. It was very successful, appealed to the middle income groups in the UK and seemed to define what quality in clothing was all about, at affordable prices for this segment of the population. It was admired for its approach to managing its supply chain. In the 1980’s it ventured into international retailing with decidedly mixed results. This seemed to be a manifestation of wider problems. As we moved into the “noughties”, M&S struggled to compete with newer entrants such as Zara: the fast retail operator. Zara shattered the conventional approach to fashion retailing.

Traditionally retailers in this sector plotted out their designs for the various seasons a year in advance; did the deals with suppliers and so on. This approach of course left them open to the vagaries of the shopper. What if the pre-designated colours and design failed to be as popular as anticipated? What if the summer “never arrived” in the UK and winter and spring lingered well into August? This resulted inevitably in losses as inventory failed to move off the shelves.

Zara introduced fast-fashion, where designs and merchandise were altered every three to four weeks.

M&S attempted a number of strategies to overcome these challenges. They introduced sub-brands such as Per Una to position it as the doyen of the middle classes. In doing so it lost focus and in my view has drifted firmly into committing the sin of irrelevance. This I believe is the greatest sin that any organisation can make. It raises serious issues about who it actually appeals to.

M&S has punted the view that it is a fashion retailer that appeals to every woman, from seventeen to seventy. How ludicrous is this approach in an era that has been driven by wider choice, more affordable fashion and the importance of individuality. This has been in place for well over a decade or so. As a fashion pundit recently said, “middle-aged women do not sink into cardigans”. They have wider choice and demand more fashion-oriented clothing.

M&S has signally and consistently failed to understand the basic mantra of successful marketing: that you have to bring a focused, targeted and relevant value proposition to the chosen segment(s) of the market.

It does not take rocket science to realise that trendy and professional young women for instance will be comfortable shopping in a retail outlet that is also trying to attract their mothers and grandmothers to the same venue.

Such a blurring of appeal inevitably leads to confusion and mixed signals.

The problems continue unabated for M&S. Results in May 2018 suggest that its share of the UK clothing market will drop from 9.7 per cent to 7.6 per cent in 2018. Primark is likely to overtake it as the UK’s leading clothing retailer.

Meanwhile M&S plans to close over one hundred of its full-line stores (clothing and food halls combined). Its profits have dropped to just under £7 million. Over the next four years around one-third of its clothing stores will close.

It spent over £150 million in 2014 on revamping its website, with mixed success.

More worryingly its food sales have dropped by -.6 per cent during the first three months of 2018. This was an area that in recent years had performed well and counteracted against the poor trading performance of its clothing division.

In an earlier blog I advocated that it should pull out of clothing and focus instead on food – an area where it had built up a reputation for good quality and innovative food selections. It would appear that this area has also stalled in the face of serious competition from a diverse range of operators such as Subway and coffee shops.

As is the case with many formerly successful retailers it would appear as though M&S has been slow to respond to the changes taking place in the retail sector. This is evidenced in its recent series of sales and profits reports.

For the past decade or so, commentators have constantly raised questions about the value proposition put forward by M&S and the lack of a coherent direction. To some extent the food element of its business has propped up the clothing sector.

I have queried the relevance of M&S remaining in the clothing sector. Is it time to question its future existence as a retailer? Has it lost its relevance in the market? Is it irredeemable?

Let us pour over some of the causes of its failure.

Clearly it has too many retail outlets. Closing one-third of its three hundred full-line stores is a step in the direction. But is it too late? Many of the stores have been criticised for looking outdated, in terms of the merchandise that it stocks and the overall appearance. Bringing in coffee shops is only a partial attempt to improve the stores. You could argue that there are too many coffee shops in the high street and in shopping malls anyway! Many of its stores have been in the same locations for years: adding to a perception of staleness and a lack of innovation.

The food halls account for around forty-six per cent of overall profits. This sector also generated much higher margins than the clothing sector. M&S food is perceived as being high in price relative to its competitors. It has over seven hundred Simply Food store on top if its food halls in its mainline stores. Some rationalisation is needed in addition to a review of its offerings and price points.

The way forward would appear to be through its online channel. However until recently it too nearly five seconds for its website to load. This is way behind its competitors. Much more needs to be done to even catch up!

If it belatedly has come to the conclusion that you cannot appeal to everyone in terms of age, size and gender, who should it appeal to? This is arguably at the heart of the problem. Will young people be attracted to some new (yet another remake) approach to fashion design? Will older women be attracted back? Should it specialise in selling knickers? After all one – third of the UK buys its undies from M&S.

It is debatable if it retains much by way of a strong brand equity. I would agree that there is still a residual effect but it is fast running out.

The corporate ethos of M&S has always been built around a strong degree of corporatism and bureaucracy. Male dominated boards in my view do little for helping the organisation to resonate with the changes in the retail space that require them to more flexible and leaner than was the case in the heydays of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

It will require more than a major overhaul to save M&S in my view. Let’s monitor their progress.

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