M&S rebirth: More timeless fashion, fewer fashion fads

M&S SS16Yesterday gave us more news on just what M&S plans to do to turn around its clothing offer and an interesting update it certainly was.

CEO Steve Rowe said at the AGM that “We have been giving our customers too many reasons not to shop with us. They tell us we have not got the balance right between style and fashion.

“We are going to focus on wearable contemporary style rather than cutting edge catwalk fashion. We will deliver fit that really flatters. We have made significant changes to the way we buy, design and source our clothes. We are customer-led in our design, translating fashion trends into clothes that make our customers feel confident. We have fabulous customers, they are stylish and savvy.”

What prompted such a major admission of guilt?

In case you don’t know (say, you’ve been on the planet Mars since about 1998), M&S has been struggling to inject growth into its fashion offer since the late 90s and successive CEOs have failed in that aim.

It remains one of Britain’s biggest clothing retailers and still makes mega profits, but its core market now often looks elsewhere for its fashion fix and new customers just aren’t signing up to the M&S experience. A massive range of new lines plus designer or celebrity collaborations over the years haven’t spurred growth and turned us all back into M&S lovers either.

Veteran view

The weird thing is that it’s taken someone who’s been at M&S for decades and has been apart of all those turnaround plans to understand the need for a virtual back-to-the-drawing board approach. You get the impression that Steve Rowe has had to bit his lip quite a lot every time a new CEO has asked him whether he thinks project X or launch Y is a great idea or not.

And it’s undeniable that a complete rebuild is what’s called for simply because the world has changed from 20 years ago. We all have so much more choice at much cheaper prices than we once did so a monolith like M&S would never be able to maintain its dominant positions of old even if it hadn’t got its strategy so wrong.

And if ‘wrong’ sounds like too harsh a word, just remember that 40% of its fashion offer was sold at markdown prices last year.

Fashion classics

So the company said it would go back to its roots with less trend-chasing and more quality classics at affordable prices. Interestingly, it didn’t mention the recent Alexa Chung collaboration, which the Twittersphere seemed to love but I personally thought was one of the worst retailer collabs of the past decade.

What Steve Rowe said yesterday suggested fewer such deals. Instead he talked about a new panel to advise the board, made up of ‘typical’ customers aged 50-plus among its shareholder base as well as more direct customer feedback.

It’s interesting that this approach has already yielded results in terms of product availability. M&S has frequently been criticised for not having enough faith in and under-ordering star items. But a £35 ‘coatigan’ from the AW16 collection proved such a hit with the panel that the company has doubled its numbers and will offer it in an extra colour besides the original blue.

It’s also interesting (but negatively so) that a quick scan of the M&S website still seems to show an obsession with youth. The picture on this page is a montage of some of the sites Editor’s Pick and the 50-plus (or even 35-plus) women is nowhere to be seen!

What about young customers?

The future focus on the tastes of the 50-plus customer doesn’t mean M&S has abandoned younger shoppers who seem happy to buy its food-to-go and underwear but wouldn’t go near its fashion offer.

Currently, 22% of customers across the retailer’s offer are under 25 and Rowe wants that to increase (understandable given that any business needs to keep replenishing its customer base). Maybe this means there won’t be too many more Alexa Chung-like deals. But we’l have to wait and see as Rowe didn’t give us any details about what it would do to appeals to 20-somethings.

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