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.” (BBC.co.uk)

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.

Customers

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.

Experience

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.





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