How can M&S get back in fashion?

By Lucy Hooker & Tom Espiner
Business reporters, BBC News

  • Published
Marks and Spencer storeImage source, Getty Images

That stalwart of the high street, Marks and Spencer, has announced that 100 stores will close by 2022.

Falling sales - and the shift to online shopping - has made it harder to justify keeping them all open.

So what can M&S do to avoid further closures and entice more people back into its stores?

We asked shoppers, a retail analyst and a fashion blogger for their advice.

The younger shopper: 'Change the store layout'

Image caption,
Bayley Freer mainly goes into M&S for food

"What do I like [about M&S]? That's a tricky one," says Bayley Freer.

She went in to look for shoes because she thinks M&S does "sometimes have stuff that can be quite cool from a design perspective".

Alas, nothing caught her eye. Bayley often shops at M&S for food - but not often for fashion.

"I've found the odd piece which I've liked, but generally I'm more disappointed than I am happy with the clothes in there."

Sometimes it's the fabric quality, sometimes the colours are "off-kilter", and sometimes they've "put odd detailing on" when they should have stuck to a more simple design.

Bayley also thinks the presentation of the shoes needs changing: "It's a little bit off-putting to go in and see racks and racks and racks of shoes - it's a bit warehousey. I feel as though I'm just buying something that's just part of a batch, a big batch."

The industry veteran: '50p underpants'

Jeremy Schwartz has worked at Coca Cola, News International, L'Oreal and Sainsbury's. Until late last year he was chief executive of the Body Shop - another brand that has struggled but has now returned to growth. So what would he recommend for M&S?

"Big, heritage brands just look dated, slow and lack an image of innovation," he says.

Management needs to overcome its fear of the bold and make some big changes, Jeremy adds. "Transform the huge M&S clothing floors into dramatically discreet, character-full, personality-rich 'independent stores' to create an emporium of discovery."

Customers are looking for both authenticity and modernity, unbelievable value but also luxury, he says.

Choose one particular product category and really go to town, Jeremy suggests, creating a "palace of couture" - but also offer value basics, such as "50p underwear that you can't help telling your friends about".

"The alternative is slow, or even accelerating decline," he warns.

The retail analyst: 'Streamline the range'

M&S does have an extremely loyal customer base, but even they are calling for changes, says Kate Hardcastle, founder of retail consultancy Insight with Passion.

She says for years customers have been telling the retailer to re-engineer the basics such as underwear, T-shirts and suits.

Image source, Rex Features and Marks and Spencer
Image caption,
The success of Alexa Chung's suede skirt didn't last

Kate also thinks they could learn from the success of the £10 meal deal and their beauty advent calendar, which stood for "luxury at an affordable price". Why not offer more promotions in homeware and fashion?

And as for fashion? "They were so tone-deaf with their customers that their tie-ups with celebrities like Alexa Chung have been off-key," she says. Alexa Chung's suede skirt was a big hit at the time, but Kate doesn't think the campaign worked in the long run.

"M&S is for the masses - but they need to streamline the range. Customers will still rave about a certain product - like black tights for winter, their thermal collection or men's chinos and they should have worked their 'magic' in these areas."

Fashion blogger - introduce personal shoppers

Stephanie Roper was a graduate manager for M&S after leaving university 15 years ago. But its intolerance of creativity prompted her to leave after 12 months to join H&M.

She still doesn't think M&S is getting it right: "A few years ago waterfall cardigans were really fashionable - those are cardigans with a wave of fabric down the front. They're very good to conceal a tummy. M&S did it to death - in denim, satin, linen."

"John Lewis, Topshop, Debenhams, all offer personal styling, providing one to one advice on putting outfits together. M&S is missing a trick if they don't start implementing that right now," she says.

Stephanie suggests M&S could offer a classic collection including the perfect jeans, white shirt, cashmere jumper and trench coat in a limited range of classic colours - and add a piece every season from the archive.

Lingerie should be M&S's forte, but using "stick-thin" supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to advertise underwear could be putting off the average shopper, she thinks. "I'd do a tie-in with a plus-size blogger to show them M&S think if you're size 16 you're totally normal [to say] we'll find you the right bra and pants and celebrate your figure."

The tourists: 'Bring it to America'

Image caption,
Pamela, Janet and Alexis make a point of coming to M&S when visiting from the US

Janet, Pamela and Alexis from the US go to M&S every time they visit the UK. There doesn't seem to be anything they'd change about the brand.

"Any time we come, we always come to Marks and Spencer, every time we visit," says Janet.

"It's got a variety of things - the foodstuff, the clothing line, everything is alright," says Pamela.

Alexis agrees: "The quality of the clothing is good, the quality of the food is good, and the prices are right.

Janet adds: "We're thinking of getting our dinner here. They have a nice food area, and it's all packaged nicely."

The only change they want is expansion. "Bring it to America.," says Alexis. "I'll be there for the grand opening."