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Deputy Diary: Customers’ tough love should be embraced by M&S

It doesn’t look good: another predicted decline in general merchandise sales, the rumoured launch of yet another sub-brand and a consumer forum full of criticism.

This is the bleak picture Marks & Spencer is faced with as it gears up to report its financial results for the three months to March 30.

If the predicted fall in sales and new brand are confirmed next week I do hope M&S has a very good reason for both.

The brand is rumoured to be called M&S Collection, and will replace M&S Woman and M&S Man (which in turn were only unveiled in 2011). I’m reserving (full) judgement until then, and if the product is outstanding then maybe we can forgive yet another change to the already confusing brand mix.

But let’s put that aside for now (see our lead News story for more) and focus on M&S’s consumer forum, notably the Ask Hilary section, fronted by former Daily Telegraph journalist Hilary Alexander, who is now a consultant on M&S’s Per Una range. On the surface, many of the comments left by customers could be dismissed as negative, but I can’t help thinking how lucky M&S is. Listen to this one: “We want to buy [from M&S] but you seem to cater for stick-thin youngsters who would never buy in M&S. Will you ever listen to we the customers? Something else, we do not want polyester tops for summer. We older ladies do venture to hot countries and would like to buy cotton tops! Please, please listen to your customers.”

At a time when consumers are bombarded with choice on the high street and online, I find it incredible that they would take the time to plead with a retailer to service them with a particular product they could easily purchase elsewhere. You can’t buy this sort of loyalty. M&S is in a unique position: its customers, despite their frustration at not always finding the right product, actually want to shop there still. They could turn their backs on M&S but instead want it to give them what they want so they can shop there again. With its heritage, M&S has a strong place in its customers’ hearts - to some extent, we all feel we have a stake in it. So it makes sense that we want it to do well.

M&S is also in a privileged position because its customers are not shy in letting the retailer know exactly what they want. Another shopper who left a comment on the forum, Mrs Linda McKie, went so far as to give the retailer a comprehensive list of suggestions as to how it could address some of its problems, and also pointed out what she felt it was doing well. This is gold dust!

Clearly, M&S has been losing some of its customers, which shows that loyalty can be broken. But it has time on its side, just about. If he listens to his customers - properly listens - and acts quickly then chief executive Marc Bolland may yet be able to turn around its fortunes.

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