Drapers analyses how Richard Price will fare in one of fashion’s toughest jobs
It is one of the biggest jobs on the high street – and a role that has been labelled “fashion’s poisoned chalice”. Four clothing bosses at Marks & Spencer have come and gone over the past decade, each struggling to reverse slumping sales within the floundering clothing and home division.
Today, the retailer announced it has poached Richard Price, boss of Tesco’s F&F clothing brand, as its new managing director of clothing and home. Price is due to take up the role in 2020, although an exact start date has yet to be confirmed.
He will replace former incumbent Jill McDonald, who joined M&S in October 2017 from her previous role as CEO of car parts and cycling retailer Halfords Group.
The industry raised a collective eyebrow at McDonald’s appointment. Experts expressed their surprise to Drapers when news of her appointment first broke, commenting that although there was no doubting her business credentials – McDonald’s CV also includes stints in senior roles at British Airways – she lacked the necessary fashion expertise.
That inexperience rapidly showed itself. McDonald was blamed for failing to stock enough of a bestselling range of jeans worn by M&S face Holly Willoughby earlier this year. So poor was the availability that group CEO Steve Rowe told shareholders that the failed promotion “led to M&S having some of the worst availability in casual trousers I’ve seen in my life”. Denim is a key category for the retailer – it sells more than 5 million pairs of jeans a year – and it can poorly afford limited availability in a hero category.
The retailer is clearly keen not to make the same mistake again. Price is a seasoned fashion boss and has a wealth of experience under his belt. Before M&S, he led BHS from 2012 to 2015.
He is also no stranger to the internal workings of M&S. Price worked at the high street stalwart from 2005 to 2012, first as head of merchandise and later as menswear trading director.
Observers said on hearing news of McDonald’s departure they would like to see “an experienced retailer who has got their hands dirty” take the helm next. Price more than fulfils that brief. He has, as he told Drapers in an interview in 2016, “always worked in fashion multiples”.
Price has also driven success at F&F. A strong performance from the womenswear range helped to boost fashion sales at Tesco last Christmas. Sales of F&F were up 3.8% year on year to the 19 weeks to 5 January – the last time they broke out clothing from the rest of the business.
Halting the decline in clothing and home sales at M&S will not be easy. The retailer is known for being a difficult ship to change course, and Price will inherit myriad legacy issues. In November, its less-than-stellar clothing and home performance was blamed on poor availability and operational issues. The retailer is also battling what Rowe labelled “volatile” consumer behaviour as shoppers tighten their purse strings amid fears of economic stability.
However, Rowe was also quick to stress that positive steps have been taken, including reducing the number of styles in womenswear by 12% and buying deeper in key areas. In October, the retailer breathed new life into its Per Una range, which has been given a more contemporary feel with the overall aim of changing its perception from “too frilly” to “stylishly feminine”.
Drapers gave M&S’s autumn 19 collection a positive review at a sneak peek of the range in September, concluding that designs were moving in the right direction.
Price will need to build on this momentum, draw on his extensive experience and galvanise the wider clothing team if he is to finally rejuvenate the fashion offer.