Marks & Spencer: Time for a new recipe?

15 06 2016

A new chief executive for a major business is always big news, as was the case when Steve Rowe was appointed as the new CEO for Marks and Spencer on 2 April 2016. Then 5 days later the BBC reported that clothing and home sales were down 2.7% (like-for-like in the 13 weeks to 26 March) not the ideal welcome gift for any new chief executive.

Mr Rowe was quoted as saying “Although the sales decline in clothing and home was lower than the last quarter, our performance remains unsatisfactory and there is still more we need to do.” (

This is encouraging, as there is always more that can be done in any business – and of course M&S is no exception. At this point I decided to take a look at the business to identify some of the things that should be on the M&S “To Do” list. The more I see, the more people I talk to the longer the list gets.

Of course I have the luxury of not knowing anything about how the business operates, which means my thinking is based on; growing up in retail environment, working in retail marketing both in-store and head office, and around 20 years of marketing, branding, communications, PR and social media experience. And most importantly, I’m good at shopping.

The following suggestions are just that; thoughts intended to help spark real excitement about the opportunities that I believe exist for Marks and Spencer. So here goes:

The Brand

I’ve talked to a number friends who are smart, professional people about M&S. These are people with disposable income and in the 30 to 50 age bracket, so they are ideal customers in so many ways. One word kept turning-up in our conversations – “confused”. Although not an extensive piece of research, I found it very easy to agree with them, and this is a concern. It does however present an exceptional opportunity to start questioning the brand itself, which in turn or even in parallel combined with identifying target customers, would help replace confusion with customers.

This isn’t work to be undertaken lightly and fundamentally the business truly has to want to go on the journey with an open mind and a real eagerness for the exceptional transformation a focused brand can deliver.

To help illustrate this, I’ve conceptualised a brand vision for M&S based on one word – “BETTER”. I particularly like this as it is very reduced and simple to understand and apply.

Look BETTER: this is what new clothing should deliver to customers.

Feel BETTER: the experience from the food, cosmetics and toiletries offer.

Live BETTER: for the home and financial services offering.

Finally, Be BETTER: the internal mantra for everyone at M&S.

By embedding BETTER at the heart of the brand a clear progressive message would become central to everything the business does. It would be simple to communicate, and is a clear, positive value for everyone from shop floor to boardroom to work towards.

Of course this is very much a cart before the horse thought, however it does help illustrate the potential a clearly and appropriately defined brand proposition could deliver for M&S.

Fundamentally, I would love to see the M&S brand absolutely oozing with confidence, excitement and passion for everything it does, and with a new positive mind-set you start to see how the brand could truly flourish. This is because I’ve grown-up with M&S, and I can see just how important the retailer is for our High Streets and ultimately because I want to be able to shop there.


In a recent store visit I’ve seem a sea of merchandise, and struggled to see what was where and who it was amied at. The people I did see with M&S carrier bags almost consistently appeared to be grandparents and there weren’t that many bags on the streets of Cardiff on the day of my visit.

I won’t hesitate in suggesting that these big stores have the potential to have a strong and credible offer for target groups from across the generations; from grandparent, parent and parent age, teenage (be brave with this age group, they are the future after all), pre-teen down to babies.

Within ranges for each of the target groups an opportunity exists to present clothing that reflects the lifestyles of the groups.

Therefore, logically, the more the target groups are understood the more relevant the offer becomes. From here you can layer on store profiling to ensure the right mix of merchandise is in place in each store, helping to put the right product for the right people in the right stores.

Importantly, people are different and for example a range for teenagers would effectively be the on-trend collection and would appeal to customers with a more fashion forward outlook regardless of age. Not for one moment would I underestimate the challenge here. However as experience is showing when the business works with designers to put more fashion into stores those items sell and sell fast.


Online retail is huge and will continue to grow, yet the High Street still has an important and evolving role to play. For customers who can choose to shop online or in person, by ensuring the physical shopping experience is interesting and engaging is of particular importance. The High Street also offers customers the opportunity to experience personal customer service.

Knowing how valued you feel on leaving a shop where you’ve encountered good customer service, I entered the M&S store on Cardiff’s Queen Street. Unfortunately there was no experience, the shop decor was clinical almost supermarket like. The volume of stock overwhelming, and this is where I could see why friends found M&S confusing.

I couldn’t understand what the store was trying to tell me, particularly with the signage in women’s clothing. Now I’ve probably got these wrong but the signs were along these lines: Limited (in itself an odd choice for a range name as it can be interpreted in two very different ways), Casual Skirts and Blouses, Indigo Edit, Summer Shop, Holiday Mix and Autograph. So just where would a woman start to look for a skirt? Would she need to visit all these areas of the shop floor? As there was very little physical differentiation in the store I can fully understand why the offer is confusing.

Into menswear and I couldn’t find men’s shirts, I literally had to hunt down the men’s shirt selection. When I found it, hidden in a corner, the sleeve length I was looking for wasn’t there and no member of staff anywhere to be seen. I deliberately looked for shirts as I’d just bought one from another store where I was helped by a knowledgeable member of staff, who explained the different fabrics and fit. Sample shirts were available to try on, and yes I bought the perfect white shirt. That level of service saved me time, made sure I had the right shirt and it was a pleasurable experience. In comparison there was no experience for me to enjoy or benefit from in M&S.

I always thought you could rely on M&S to deliver these basics better than anyone else on the High Street and that wasn’t close to being the case on my visit. So if this is typical, I’d truly encourage the business to revisit service on the shop floor – back to the BETTER branding.

Enough of the present, the best way illustrate what the experience could be is to visualise it and this is where things get exciting. So imagine a women’s shoe department that was nothing short of a Shoe Boudoir. I mentioned this to a close friend, her eyes lit-up and she came straight back with “Shoedoir” – what an amazing concept!

What would it take to create a space that was totally passionate about footwear, a destination that made women feel special just by being there? You can almost see the velvet sofas, the selfie mirror complete with “Me and my new M&S shoes” sign, highly trained staff and of course an amazing range of footwear. The aim would be to make a woman spending £30 on a pair of shoes feel like she has just spent £300 – a BETTER experience all round. You rarely see this type of experience outside of major cities and doesn’t it just perfectly align with the passion many women have for shoes.

Delivered with conviction and authority this one concept would help women to start re-engaging with M&S, and of course the beauty of any such vision is that it could always be trialled in a small number of stores first.

In terms of the home offer, I arrived at that section towards the end of my visit and let’s just say it follows the confused theme.

I was also struck by the lack of information about M&S in my community. I do expect big retailers to be active in the community doing positive things to help people, and I also believe this is a beneficial way to effectively engage with customers. To follow up I checked on the M&S website and nothing, and so I clicked on the corporate site button and that’s where the information is. I can’t understand why this positive work is hidden away, and a quick fix would be to put it in a much more prominent location.

A final thought on the experience would be to encourage M&S to be truly adventurous, even if that means bringing in key brands that would appeal to the target customers. Is there anything stopping the business selling Apple and Nike products for example?

At the other end of the scale, engaging with small UK producers and artists to help develop, promote and sell products that were more unique and unusual. I can see this type of thinking is the opposite of the big selling machine approach, yet at the same time it would help to transform the way people think of M&S and add genuine points of interest in store. Ultimately helping to create a BETTER experience for customers.

In the mix

This article only touches the tip of the iceberg. There are many more fundamentals that need to be considered including: product and all things marketing. However, by getting the brand right and aligned to target customers would give M&S a new and BETTER foundation for its long term future.

On that basis it would be encouraging if some of these ingredients made their way into the mix as Steve Rowe sets about improving the business. I can’t help but think that now is the time for M&S to be brave in the quest to deliver BETTER.

A different view

4 05 2013

Just wanted to share this photo I took of the underside of the Britannia Bridge in Anglesey.


Is shopkeeping the art of retail?

7 01 2013

It’s been famously said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, and whilst the term itself seems old fashioned, good old fashioned shopkeeping practices are increasingly important for retailers to adopt both on the High Street and online.

These practices always focused on genuine customer service, a true willingness to want to help customers and continual customer engagement. In many ways your local shopkeeper was your friend.

I know this from experience, as when I was growing-up my grandmother had a corner shop which every Saturday you could guarantee people would be queuing up outside to get in. She ran a very good business, and her recipe for success was simple; customers could simply drop off their shopping lists and she’d have their orders delivered. This made good sense as her customers could use this small corner shop without ever needing to go the supermarket.

Now what really made my grandmother an exceptional shopkeeper is the fact that she never once delivered an incomplete order. Instead, I’d often accompany her to the competitors’ shops where she’d buy all the missing items she didn’t have in stock for the orders and I’d be in the backroom taking the price labels off! (I think it best we just glance past any ethical issues here and just call this entrepreneurial spirit on her part!)

The reason for doing this was simple, my grandma knew if she didn’t go and buy the items her customers would have to make the journey themselves and she’d risk losing their customer altogether. So whilst she’d make no profit on these items, she knew she was keeping her customer happy, which in turn kept them shopping in her shop.

Of course the shop was also the font of all local gossip which only served to help make it more popular and more successful.

This type of shopkeeping is exactly what customers want and successful retailers large and small are capable of delivering it, provided they choose to take a customer centric approach to their retail business.

Rightly so, John Lewis ( immediately springs to mind, and with partners who are knowledgeable, approachable and helpful the business deserves to be successful.

However it’s also possible to be a good online shopkeeper and I’d certainly suggest that Pedlars ( is a perfect example of this. They have a great product offering, which is further enhanced by the ways they proactively engage with their customers and potential customers both on their website and through social media. This helps people to connect with Pedlars and feel a part of their unique proposition.

Likewise in my hometown of Penarth, the Hampton’s store( exceptionally well engaged with its customers. This is shown by the extra services they offer including a dedicated Doggie Diner – for customers’ dogs to enjoy a Doggiechino, evening events, a strong social media presence and most importantly proprietors visible on the shop floor interacting with customers.

Whilst retail will continue to be challenging in 2013, be it online or in-store retailers that pay attention to detail and most importantly their customers will be likely to be best placed to have a successful year. If that means thinking like my grandma the shopkeeper – go for it!

Will the bar be raised?

6 11 2012

The wraps are coming off retailer’s Christmas 2012 campaigns, which reminded me of the amazing ad run by John Lewis last year.
This execution significantly raised the bar and has had over 4.3million views on YouTube to date.
Creating an ad that will make people talk about it, ideally for the right reasons, is a big challenge.
However with the potential for it to be shared quickly and easily, at the concept stage, a simple question is worth asking – “will people talk about this, will they want to share it?”
If the answer is a confident yes, and ideally confirmed by pre-testing, then the ad could have a chance of gaining the level of viewing figures enjoyed by the John Lewis advert.
Here’s the ad in question, enjoy and lets see how it compares to the 2012 Christmas campaigns.

Sofa so Good

16 10 2012

We’ve seen an interesting series of ads from DFS this year. These offer a new more engaging view of their products and provide a refreshing change to the “Sale Now On” messages they’ve used extensively in the past.
If my research is right, much of this has been achieved by Krow Communications and an example of one the ads is shown below.
The “Making everyday more comfortable” strap line supports the execution well.
In terms of customer engagement I also like the way they promote the fact that everything is handmade to order. That being the case a video showing the sofa story from customer order through manufacture and onto delivery could work well for DFS.
Made to order reminded me of my Grandma’s chair. She wasn’t a very tall women and had one of the chairs in her three piece suite (those were the days) made with a shorter seat. This meant she could sit comfortably in the chair.
Considering the ageing demographic in the UK wouldn’t it be great if DFS could offer a similar type of bespoke personalisation!
Unusually, I didn’t see any links to social media on their website. This strikes me as a missed opportunity as there are plenty of ways you could generate a strong following for all things sofa.
On checking their website you’ll also find out this British business has been around for over 40 years, and I like to think there is great potential for DFS to use their heritage to further support their marketing.
It’s fully understandable that DFS can’t totally abandon the value mmessages they use – it’s a tough market out there. However at the same time it’s encouraging to see them broadening their appeal with new ’emotional’ messages.
Will be good to see what they have planned for 2013.

Making inroads with brand heritage

13 10 2012

Here’s a print ad (The Telegraph Magazine 13th Oct) showing how Jaguar Land Rover are using their heritage to support their brand.
The clean and simple “It’s in the blood” campaign uses an execution that keeps the focus on the vehicles and clearly underpins the brand’s credentials.


Squirrel Power

29 09 2012

I have a small obsession with squirrels – especially as there are two who use my lawn as their food store!
So this ceramic squirrel speaker from U.S. retailer www.west certainly caught my eye.


Isn’t it amazing and in the current economic climate retailers that can offer such irresistible products should be well positioned to keep attracting customers.