Two sides of the same coin at M&S?

Marks and Spencer continues to return disappointing sales and profits. In January 2016 it announced that its present CEO, Mark Bolland, will stand down in April. He will be replaced by Steve Rowe, who currently holds the post of Director of General Merchandise.

The Christmas period did not bring much joy to the company. Sales across its merchandise division dropped by around 5% when compared to like-for-like figures. Unseasonable weather and major promotional activities were identified as the main contributors to this position.

By contrast online sales and in particular, performance in the food section of its business introduced some form of counter-balance: sales held up well in the latter category while online returns increased by approximately 20%.

Herein lies the conundrum in my view. What business is M&S in? It operates in two distinct and separate areas: clothing and food. Over the past number of years the results have been consistent: consistent that is in terms of their predictability. Clothing and merchandise consistently underperforms while its “Simply Food” division generates very healthy sales.

It begs the question as to whether Marks and Spencer has any real future in fashion retailing.

At first glance the obvious answer is that it has. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s it was consistently portrayed as one of the iconic UK retail fashion brands: generating high quality merchandise at reasonably affordable prices. The advent of “fast-fashion” retailers such as Zara, followed by other “leaner” retailers such as H&M, Next and so on. These retailers in many ways have re-defined the way retailers operate: driving costs down, generating affordable and trendy fashion and constantly generating new designs (admittedly through replication rather than through originality). M&S would appear to be constantly reacting to these changes, without necessarily making any advances.

Despite introducing a range of new brands such as Autograph, Indigo and Per Una, it still struggles. Perhaps the introduction of so many brands has led to confusion in the minds of its target market?

Should it remain in the fashion retail business? Should it “bite the bullet” and concentrate instead on its very successful Simply Food division? In the latter case M&S has consistently proved to be innovative and creative when it comes to introducing new food categories such as salmon shells and Santa sponges.

In my view it may be too drastic an option to pull out of the fashion sector. It is experiencing some growth with its online sales division. There is also an opportunity to draw some synergies between the two divisions. In the case of rewarding loyal shoppers for instance it can make greater use of vouchers which can be redeemed across the two divisions. It is also likely that other retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda will also step up to the plate with more attractive food options and provide a sterner test of M&S’s ability to retain its success in this sector. By putting “all its eggs in one basket” it may leave itself open to even greater threats over the coming years.

In the case of the fashion sector, M&S in my view needs to adopt a more focused segmentation strategy. Who does it currently appeal to? Some commentators argue that by trying to appeal to all ages, genders, shapes and sizes, it falls into the trap of having no distinctive appeal to any one segment of the market. Will young, professional females shop in the same store as their mothers and grandmothers? Probably not. It has to redefine its product offering in the fashion sector. By doing so, it may capture a point of differentiation that it currently appears not to hold.

On a positive note it appears as though its improved supply chain strategy has led to improvements in cost management in particular. Indeed some commentators have argued that the complexities and previous rigidity with regard to managing the supply chain has created more problems that the lack of impact with its different brands.

In summary M&S has a split personality. It has a “good side” and a “bad side”. The latter needs some major treatment. Maybe the next CEO will succeed where others have failed.