Marks & Spencer has the backing of a nation. Most shoppers – 81% in fact – are willing it to succeed, our recent consumer survey shows. But as yesterday’s first-quarter figures proved, chief executive Steve Rowe has a big job on his hands.
The 8.9% drop in underlying clothing and home sales came as a shock, even to the most critical of analysts. In fact, it has been likened to the disastrous trading of Christmas 2008 that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. This time around, however, Brexit is being blamed by observers.
But let’s be honest here, M&S has been experiencing peaks and troughs for a good few years now, and clothing sales have seen £200m worth of losses in the last three years. Something’s got to give. It’s time the retailer went back to what it does best: brilliant basics with a smattering of fashion options.
People don’t want to be confined to the “Mrs M&S” label
As the previous head of clothing at M&S, Rowe should have as good an insight as any into what is and is not working. Ask his shoppers – as we did this week – and they will tell you the same thing: the element of reliability has gone. Sizing is all over the place, the styles are aged and people don’t want to be confined to the “Mrs M&S” label.
But clothing is too big a part of M&S’s business proposition and retail estate to just be wiped out. It’s time to stick the anchor in, develop a long-term strategy and prove its staying power – even if that includes a few rocky years.
A great case in point is Levi’s. After a very successful trading period in the 1980s, it had fallen out of favour just a decade later. But rather than giving up, Levi’s admitted its faults and delivered a new brand proposition that put the customer at its heart. It is a statement we hear regularly, but it is another thing to deliver on it. It is serving the brand well and Levi’s is returning to the fore. But what it really shows us is that patience is a virtue.
Listening to customers is key, as even the most loyal get fed up eventually. It’s do or die for Marks & Spencer clothing. I hope it’s not the latter.
Nick Gray is managing director at marketing agency Live & Breathe