After seven consecutive quarters of falling general merchandise (GM) sales, Marks & Spencer boss Marc Bolland is pinning his hopes on the retailer’s autumn 13 collection, which was unveiled this week after months of anticipation and speculation.
The question on everyone’s lips is: will this collection turn around M&S’s fortunes? Well, to expect one season to undo the damage of several seasons is unrealistic - but the autumn 13 range is a step in the right direction.
At the unveiling, I was expecting a streamlining of the sub-brands, hoping for more design and trend-led product with great quality, and praying for better stock management. The last two wishes were granted. The coats - across all sub-brands - were impressive, particularly a wool check style in Autograph (which was arguably the strongest brand) and a lovely soft-pink coat for only £85.
By offering a texture-heavy collection, M&S was not only making a trend statement, but also one about quality. It has introduced a new charter to ensure high standards in fabric, fit and finish, and fabrics such as lambswool, cashmere (whose weight M&S has increased by 9%), leather and lace were abundant in all product categories.
As for stock management, I sighed with relief when womenswear director Frances Russell announced that GM had been edited by at least 10%, creating fewer options but more depth. M&S needs a tighter collection of great pieces rather than a bigger choice of average ones. As executive director of GM John Dixon explained of one unnamed product category: “90% of sales came from 50% of the SKUs”.
The sub-brands are still there, although M&S Woman has been rebranded M&S Collection. But I was assured by style director Belinda Earl that each sub-brand does “great business” and that differentiation will come from distinct product in each brand. Earl also admitted there had been too many similarities between the brands.
Of course, a lot will depend on in-store merchandising and customer communication about the collection, so these must be executed with precision for the ranges to make an impact. In the post-presentation Q&A, respected analyst Tony Shiret wasn’t impressed with M&S’s choice of young models to show off a collection targeted at customers aged 45-plus, and nor did he think they would choose these trend-led pieces. He’s right on the first point: customers have to be at the core of every product decision, and 20-something models are at odds with its older shoppers. But I believe that the M&S woman absolutely wants beautifully designed clothes with a confident nod to trends, if the trends are appropriate. And many of them, perhaps with the exception of grunge, were.
M&S needs to be bold. The competition is far too tough for a softly-softly approach.