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Making a mark at M&S

Marks & Spencer trading director Annette Browne (pictured left) was grilled by Drapers editor Jessica Brown (right) about the challenges of her role and how teamwork and passion will get you noticed.

How did you get to where you are today?
I started off as a designer specialising in knitwear at [manufacturer] Courtaulds, which supplied Marks & Spencer, and I used to think the M&S selectors were such horrible people that I didn’t think I’d ever work there. Then I worked with [now M&S executive director for clothing] Kate Bostock at George at Asda and when Kate left to go to M&S, she said to me: “You will come with me, won’t you?” I said no, they’re not nice people there. But I’ve been here for six years and it’s a fabulous business.

What does a trading director actually do?

I strategically guide the business and make sure we have the right product in stores at the right time.

Would you agree with Next product director Christos Angelides that the customer is at the heart of a business? I would never disagree with Christos. The customer has to be at the heart of what you do. It’s hard for us because we have such a broad range of customers.

How do you go about understanding what the M&S customer wants?

Every Friday I go to the stores. You have to go into the furthest corners of the country where our core customers are. We also have consumer focus groups. Before we buy the ranges, we show them to customers to get them to rank the products.

Do you expect the challenging trading conditions to continue for the rest of the year?

It’s going to be a very tough year and I don’t see things turning around any time soon. People have less money to spend on clothing, utility and petrol prices are rising so we need to get our share of their spend. I worry about oil prices now - if the boats slow down, it takes longer for the product to get to us. And we’re not going to see price deflation. We’re spinning so many plates.

So what can you do?

We have to be nimble and flexible. We are putting prices up, but we put more into a garment so our volumes haven’t suffered. The danger is when retailers start to play it safe. Customers still want newness and this season’s wide-leg trousers are doing well for us.

What else is doing well?

Printed trousers and palazzo pants.

How has your day-to-day work been affected by the “perfect storm” of factors affecting the market?

The day-to-day work will always remain the same. But the biggest change now is that you don’t want to commit all your money upfront so we’re buying as close to the season as we can.

It means sourcing from countries like Turkey [that are closer to the UK], which are more expensive than the Far East. We’re travelling a lot more and spending more time with our suppliers to make sure we get the trends spot on.

How can a person stand out in the fashion industry?

It’s all about team work. But you must have passion too. Fashion isn’t a job; it’s a way of life. Global experience is becoming more important too.
How important is it to work for different retailers as you build your career? You need to have experience at other retailers, especially in the early parts of your career, but also not look as if you’re hopping around. Two to three years in each role is good.

Why has M&S decided to close its stores for the royal wedding?

We don’t think people will be shopping; they’ll be watching it on TV. It also gives our staff a treat.

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