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M&S’s ‘department store’ direction splits opinion

Marks & Spencer’s final push for autumn 13 has failed to impress rival retailers despite financial analysts giving it a cautious welcome.

The retailer this week unveiled its new visual merchandising approach at the Pantheon store on London’s Oxford Street, showcasing greater brand and category segmentation, a serviced footwear section and a tighter edited approach to some of its high fashion items.

Chief executive Marc Bolland said the retailer had chosen the “always disregarded” Pantheon store to the east of Oxford Circus to prove that the new approach could work outside of the better-kept flagships.

While some experts were impressed with the improvements, others argued M&S was in danger of creating a two-tier portfolio of stores, and some criticised the department store approach.

One retail boss and former M&S employee said: “The stores are starting to articulate a more Straight forward message in terms of the segments such as denim, knitwear and so on. But the problem is it is trying to be a department store without having the right size stores and that means there will be inconsistency throughout its estate – that could cause a problem.”

In total, 70 of the 350 clothing stores will be given the facelift, although elements such as the serviced footwear section and the ‘Inspiration Station’ – an interactive screen where customers can match shoes with accessories and email themselves details – will be trialled in a handful of stores.

As part of a move towards a department store feel, visual merchandising also included bunches of real lilies and picture frames on tables. A second retail chief described the displays as “a pastiche”.

“Department stores have to compartmentalise by their nature, but actually they try to do it to a minimum because unless you’re very high-end, customers don’t like being forced into segmented rooms. With M&S, accessibility is the key.”

Seymour Pierce analyst Freddie George highlighted Per Una Speziale and the footwear and accessories areas as particularly improved, but noted: “It will be very difficult to translate what they have done here elsewhere.

“I also have questions over the costs and capital expenditure, if as Marc says, capital expenditure will stay where it is that means he is cutting back elsewhere.”

Independent analyst Nick Bubb told Drapers: “The moment of greatest risk for Bolland has probably passed. The big test of the autumn range was the in-store merchandising and presentation and it in fact seems to have thought that through well.”

But M&S’s Zara-esque approach to repeat-buying stock, with a spokeswoman saying for the high fashion lines “when it’s gone, it’s gone”, also drew mixed reviews.

While this approach was applauded by analysts as “channeling demand”, one retailer described the move as “a red herring […] By creating instant demand it makes it seem much more interesting but the reality is there probably weren’t many made in the first place”.

Readers' comments (2)

  • is this listening to the customer?? The expectations of M&S is that they will fulfill the demand for good quality product at affordable prices.
    Let Selfridges be Selfridges and serve your customer!!

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  • darren hoggett

    M&S seem really unsure of what they want to do, and you have to question whether they really have the expertise to move things forward. Can't see Bolland lasting another 18 months.

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