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Pressure mounts at M&S after clothing misses the mark

Caroline Nodder

I doubt there were too many surprised faces this week when Marks & Spencer finally confirmed that its executive director of general merchandise Kate Bostock is leaving the business.

I doubt there were too many surprised faces this week when Marks & Spencer finally confirmed that its executive director of general merchandise Kate Bostock is leaving the business.

Rumours to that effect have been circulating for well over a year now, with Bostock’s name being bandied about in connection to any number of high-profile roles at retailers from Asos to New Look.

Final confirmation coincided with the release of M&S’s worst financials since 2008, and certainly insiders have been telling us for months that she was disengaged with the business and unhappy in her role, at the very time that womenswear, in particular, needed a very firm hand.

So what’s gone wrong for M&S, the former darling of high street womenswear? Ultimately in the tough and highly competitive middle market, retailers can’t afford to make mistakes, and M&S has made several glaring ones in recent times.

In seeking to broaden its core female consumer, and in particular attract younger shoppers, it introduced a number of sub-brands that have proved confusing. Limited Collection was intended for the younger audience, but the term younger was always going to be relative. M&S was not suddenly going to be able to compete with Primark for the early 20s market, either on design or price; it was always going to appeal more to the early 30s. Initially Limited did well. Its wearable cuts with a trend-led twist appealed to the 30-plus daughters of its traditional grey shopper. But in the past two years it has lost focus with crop-tops and ultra-skinny shapes that the 30-plus woman can’t carry off.

Elsewhere, the core older customer has been unsettled by the trend-led Limited and confused by the sub-brands – M&S Woman, Classic, Indigo, Per Una and Autograph – and no longer feels M&S is aimed at her.

The product across the sub-brands has become bland – Per Una is a mess of the same floral maxis seen for six seasons now – and the basics are expensive compared with Uniqlo, for example.

Bolland’s efforts to step things up a gear, dropping the mysterious Portfolio sub-brand and introducing a new storefit, have, in my opinion, not addressed the root of the problem, which is the clothes themselves.

His background is in commodity produce, grocery and drinks. Perhaps without the full engagement of Bostock he has underestimated the importance of the design and marketing of the clothing M&S depends on. Even in the worst laid-out store in the world – many Primark and Next stores are far from great in this capacity – fantastic clothing targeted correctly at its core customer will save the day.

M&S’s new style director Belinda Earl will no doubt head straight in this direction when she starts in September – and if I was a betting woman I’d also predict that some of those sub-brands face the chop.  

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