It will take a while for Marks & Spencer’s clothing sales to return to growth, the retailer’s bullish new chief executive Steve Rowe warned yesterday.
At a press conference following the release of the retailer’s results for the year to April 2, which showed like-for-like sales of clothing and homewares were down 2.9%, Rowe was careful not to overpromise.
Asked when he expected a shift in the clothing division’s fortunes, he said: “It will take time for customers to notice and change their behaviour.”
Chief operating officer Helen Weir, beside him on the stage, later admitted the changes were unlikely to have a visible impact within the current financial year.
Rowe made it clear that the tactic of boosting margins favoured by his predecessor, Marc Bolland, is expected to lose some of its momentum.
As a result, efforts to turnaround the clothing and home business will hit profits in the short term, he said, repeating a warning in the earlier trading update.
The clothing and home division has, until now, been lumped together under the umbrella of “general merchandise”. Rowe said they had decided to call it “clothing and home” from now on because “that’s what our customers shop for in stores”.
While this did not raise any eyebrows, his description of the core shopper as “Mrs M&S”, a woman “we need to cherish and celebrate”, came under fire yesterday. Some Twitter users called the term “patronising” , “gendered” and “old fashioned”.
But Rowe persevered with it at the press conference, explaining that the core shoppers are female, over 50 and shop at M&S on average 18 times per year.
However, he also acknowledged that 42% of M&S’s 32 million customers are men and 22% are under 35, “so they’re not all women and they’re not all older”.
He emphasised the importance of making better use of the data that has long been at M&S’s disposal to gain insights into who its customers are and what they are buying.
The data shows that, as well as the core shopper, there are occasional and top shoppers.
Occasional shoppers, of which there are an estimated 22 million, go into an M&S six times a year on average – four times for food and twice for clothing. Top shoppers pop in 75 times per year for food and 26 for clothing.
The aim is to increase the frequency with which each M&S customer shops. “If they each bought one more item per year, that would amount to around £0.5bn in sales,” Rowe pointed out.
He assured reporters that his plans to increase levels of staffing on the shop floor meant hiring new recruits, not closing stores and redeploying them.
However, that is not to say some stores will not close. A review of its UK store estate is ongoing and an update is due in the autumn.
There is no major store refurbishment programme on the cards; rather the focus will be on getting more staff in, improving the merchandising in the clothing and home sections and revamping the changing rooms, toilets and cafes. “There are the things that matter to our customers,” argued Rowe.
Meanwhile, the investment in its website will continue. M&S is number two for online clothing sales in the UK, behind Next. Rowe admitted M&S was unlikely to overtake its biggest high street rival any time soon, although he said he was confident it was possible at some point.