Not surprisingly, the only fashion retail story to compete for headlines with the US election race this week has been the much-anticipated financial update from high street stalwart Marks & Spencer – its first results announcement since the disastrous set of first-quarter numbers unveiled this summer.
Undoubtedly chief executive Marc Bolland – not one to show too much emotion – felt the pressure to show that the business has made adjustments to move out of the first-quarter dip, and certainly this week’s numbers show improvement in the second quarter. But they also showed, as Bolland emphasised at the press briefing, that there is much still to be done on clothing to get M&S back on track and that the new teams need time to prove themselves.
Indeed, the week also saw Bolland unveil more changes in the clothing teams to bolster the high-level appointments made in September – John Dixon moving from food to general merchandise to head up the division, Kate Bostock finally exiting after months if not years of speculation, and Belinda Earl starting in a part-time role to head up womenswear product (the main area of concern).
At the time of those appointments, Bolland was criticised for placing a ‘food man’ in charge and for denigrating the womenswear role to part-time. He has also been criticised in the past for a broad-brush approach that lacks the detail and product focus that former M&S bosses – notably Sir Stuart Rose – brought to the company.
Until this week Bolland hadn’t tackled either of these criticisms head on so it was interesting to see a change in how he approached the announcement this time, strongly defending Earl’s role, which he says is so product focused that three days is a considerable investment. Certainly Drapers observed a change in his approach, and someone had tightly briefed him on the detail within M&S’s clothing that has seen it start turning around its performance.
He spoke specifically about ranges and product in fashion in a way he hasn’t before, and mentioned sizing and buying strategy in detail, including admissions that in the past the merchandising teams have not bought strategically enough into product featured in M&S’s TV campaigns, for example. He also spoke about the company’s use of a size 16 model in a campaign – a nod to the fact M&S had been accused of forgetting that its core customer is neither a size six nor 18 to 20 years old.
Clever briefing, or a new interest in fashion? You decide. But either way the City, and indeed the media, did not wrench Bolland limb from limb as they had in the summer – and he’s right, it will take two seasons for the new team’s worth to show in the product. In the meantime, Bolland is shrugging off rumours about an imminent departure and talking about himself and the company in the longer term.