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Bernadette Lusher

Its clothing might grab the headlines, but Marks & Spencer’s footwear offer, led by women’s footwear head of buying Bernadette Lusher, has played a key role in the retailer’s revival.

With lead times of five months, it’s not difficult to see some of the issues Marks & Spencer faced when it came to creating a credible footwear offer. But that was three years ago. Now, thanks to a new womenswear footwear team, it is making huge strides.

It may not be pushing boundaries in the style of Yves Saint Laurent’s latest six-inch, peep-toe offerings, but its “nod to the trends”, with cone-shaped heels and jewel embellishment, has meant that M&S can more than comfortably compete on the high street. And the comfort sector is where it is really breaking ground.

After winning this year’s Comfort Retailer of the Year accolade at the Drapers Footwear Awards earlier this week, M&S has proved that comfort is no longer the sole domain of its Footglove line of the 1990s. Bernadette Lusher, who is leading the changes in the women’s footwear buying department, says comfort is key to M&S’s offer.

Lusher, an M&S lifer of 27 years, has been an integral part of womenswear boss Kate Bostock’s strategy to kick the offer into the 21st century. As head of buying for women’s footwear (as well as heading the buying for M&S’s Classic Collection womenswear brand), Lusher has completely overhauled its footwear department, from the team’s buying strategy to the good, better, best pricing architecture seen in stores this season.

Speaking to Drapers in the basement of M&S’s canal-side head office near Paddington railway station in west London, this is the first press interview Lusher has ever done. Although claiming to be nervous, once she starts talking about where M&S has been and is going, she is in her element, keen to point out just how far the retailer has come.

One of the toughest issues in footwear, she explains, is marrying competitive prices with a comfortable, quality product. “If you buy a cheap T-shirt for £6, it can still look alright and it won’t cause you pain. But buy cheap shoes and they will cut your feet,” she says.

Flexible units, half sizes, the collection of Wide Fit-branded styles and M&S’s use of Insolia - a technology that redistributes the pressure to stop burning in the balls of feet when wearing high heels - all go a long way towards keeping feet happy, she says.

M&S is pushing Insolia in “a big way” for spring after trialling it last year. The technology is now used for all “office” shoes and Lusher believes it can go into all the retailer’s shoes in future, giving the offer a unique edge.

Lusher’s first steps in retail were within M&S’s store management programme, before graduating to head office as a homewares buyer. She then spent a big chunk of her time within menswear and was a key part of the launch team behind the Italian Collection range.

From there, she made her first move into footwear as a category manager for the men’s offer in 1997. Until this point, she had not been involved in women’s footwear. But in 2004, when Bostock joined the business from George at Asda, the resulting departmental upheaval thrust Lusher into women’s footwear.

“After the restructuring, they needed some relief within womenswear - and I ended up staying on,” she says. Three years on, the footwear department has changed almost beyond recognition. “When I first came into this area, it was hard to understand how we were buying the ranges. We needed buyers who were clear and focused on exactly who our customer was and what we needed to do.”

At any time M&S has a total of 200 styles on offer, so the first change to the department came through improved segmentation. “Kate’s strategy is ‘every woman, every time’. We knew we needed to cater for every woman who came to buy our shoes, so getting the brands right for each of them was critical.”

M&S looked first at its pricing architecture, beyond its entry-level mainline. “We’ve had to do a lot of work on prices to make sure we’re competitive. We added Autograph, which filled the top price point, while Limited Collection added the fashion proposition.”

Footwear then “got on a roll”, says Lusher, and now boasts a department segmented by mainline, Autograph, Limited Collection, traditional comfort brand Footglove, the newly launched Classic and Per Una footwear ranges, as well as its Wide Fit label.

“The offer is now understandable and we can move it on to improve it,” she says. “This year, we’ve introduced hanging footwear for £20 or less. We decided to try it in the clothing department so people can visualise complete outfits. We went for it in a big way this season and have seen massive uplifts as a result - it has attracted new customers to our footwear.”

Opening price points have also been rejigged, with pumps now available for £9.50 rather than £12 and flip-flops starting at £5. Leather shoes kick off at £15, which is also the opening price for Limited Collection. Boots start at £19.50 for a fabric leopard-print ankle boot.

Lusher says M&S remains in the minority by offering “open pairage” with all its shoes out on display. “But women love it,” she says. “They grab three or four pairs and get out quickly.”

Serviced areas have been trialled in men’s footwear since last year and are now in 16 stores. But after extensive research, the service will not be rolled out for women. “Our women customers were adamant about keeping self service. Men buy less shoes than women, they spend different amounts of money and are usually buying one pair. It’s a totally different process for women.”

Major innovations coming up for autumn include introducing new top-tier product to the Autograph footwear range and a new-look footwear department rolling out to 30 stores.

Although Lusher is determined not to give the game away, she says the new Autograph collection will embody all the “elegance and sophistication” of the clothing range. Existing prices stop at £45, excluding boots, but the new styles are likely to add a significant premium, although will still be less than £100.

Lusher is visibly excited about the revamped footwear departments. She says it is M&S’s chance to better compete with specialists, who can advertise their wares to the high street through the shop window. The new design will include a “window-like” feature, meaning customers can get a taster of what’s on offer. “They can then go off and find the shoes. It looks amazing,” she says.

When Lusher took up her role, footwear had the longest lead times in M&S’s business. “Buying for autumn would mean reviewing our needs in December of the previous year. It was crazy. Kate wanted us to find a different way of buying to speed things up.” That meant a radical overhaul. “It’s now May and we’ve not bought any product for October. Yet we know one of our rivals has already bought for spring 08.”

Picking up a mainline sandal, she adds: “We only bought this style last week and it will go in stores for the third week of June. And we still don’t have all our summer product.”

The old process involved briefing suppliers, selection meetings, fittings and sealing contracts - all of which was taking three to four months, creating lead times of about five months. To speed things up and move closer to the season, M&S came up with a simple idea. “After briefing suppliers, the team flies out to where the manufacturers are based - China, for example - and lives there for two weeks.”

The suppliers then present their product, and the M&S team builds up a range to buy. Lusher then flies out at the end of the process to sign it off. As well as cutting out the inefficiencies of living thousands of miles apart, it also means suppliers are under pressure to hit their dates. “Fittings are agreed, prices are agreed, and suppliers love it. It has cut a three-month process down to two weeks.”

Lead times, from design stage to store, have been slashed from between 18 and 22 weeks to as little as 10 to 12 weeks, while a reorder takes between six and eight weeks to hit stores.

Some 65% of M&S’s footwear is supplied from the Far East, with the rest coming from Europe, including Italy and Macedonia. More supply has been moved into Italy, says Lusher, because the retailer can get an improved handwriting on top of a speedier response.

Naturally, Clarks is one of M&S’s biggest rivals, but Lusher says the competition is wide-ranging. “We can’t ignore New Look, but we also look to Kurt Geiger and LK Bennett. When we do our competitive shop, we look at everything - even Tesco. Taking a complete view is essential to spot gaps in the market. That’s how we saw the gap for a £19.50 offer; no one else is doing it.”

In many cases, she claims, the quality of competitors’ offers does not match M&S’s own standards. The retailer brought in a new design manager and designer last year, and their influence is in full flow for spring.

The head of footwear for one major chain says M&S is one of several non-specialists that has become a dominant player in the footwear market. “Shoppers now buy footwear, bags and jewellery from the same shop as their clothes. As a so-called non-specialist, M&S has become more of a specialist than many standalones and is one of several retailers that women go to first for their footwear.”

It is the engineering of its footwear that really helps M&S to stand out, he adds. “On comfort footwear, M&S and Clarks lead the way when it comes to a great pair of safe, comfy shoes.”

However, he says although the retailer has come on a lot, it still lacks authority on trends because it caters for a slightly older market. “People go there when they need a new pair of shoes rather than looking for a fashion buy. But it does have great product this season. I visited a store last month and, all credit to M&S, it is making headway. But it’s not there yet when it comes to the 20- to 30-year-old market.”

Regardless of any criticism, Lusher says footwear has proved itself a key part of M&S’s revival. “More customers are converting to footwear and it’s a lot to do with all the extra detailing in the product,” she explains.

However, she is humble about responsibility for the success. “We’re all working to Kate’s strategy. It’s simple, but it focuses the mind.”

People are clearly reappraising the M&S footwear offer. Lusher says the growth achieved by the department demonstrates that as well as existing customers buying more, new customers are buying into it. She also hints that some of the Your M&S marketing magic could find its way to footwear. “When M&S marketing director Steven Sharp started the TV ads, we weren’t at the stage we are now.”

M&S’s footwear market share speaks for itself. For the year to March, its value share rose by more than 10% to take it over the 6% mark, second only to Clarks, while volume share was up 17% to more than 6%, second to New Look. And further gains in the past six months paint an even rosier picture, with value up 17% to more than 6.5%, while volume is up almost 20%, topping 7% and stealing back the crown from New Look.

Like most areas of M&S’s business, footwear is going from strength to strength. And it has not gone unnoticed, smiles Lusher. “Everyone in the business is talking about how good our footwear is at the moment.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

2005-present: Head of buying for womenswear (footwear, accessories and Classic Collection), Marks & Spencer

2003-04: Head of buying for womenswear (Classic Collection and knitwear)

1999-03: Category manager for menswear (footwear, accessories, Autograph range and gifts)

1997-98: Seconded to business consultancy AT Kearney to work on buying processes

1980-97: Various store managementand head office positions, including men’s formalwear and senior selector for homewares at M&S

1980: Joined Marks & Spencer’s store management programme for the retailer’s London stores.

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