With arguably the biggest job in fashion retail, all eyes are on Marks & Spencer’s director of general merchandise as she implements a drive for newness and streamlines clothing options
Described as a “control freak in a good way” by people who know her, Marks & Spencer’s director of general merchandise Kate Bostock has risen to the challenges that come with having what is arguably the biggest job in UK fashion retail.
“She likes to take responsibility and is good at creating a vision that people can buy into,” says someone who knows her.
Since joining M&S in 2004, Bostock has done just that, updating its classic product to have more trend direction, cutting lead times, improving architecture and clearly defining sub-brands.
Last week, she once again proved her worth, when the high street giant defied forecasts to post a 10.1% rise in clothing sales, with like-for-like sales of general merchandise ahead 9.1% for the 13-week fourth quarter to March 27.
Admittedly, last year’s equivalent period, when the UK was mired in recession, means comparisons are soft but few would dispute it was a good showing that smashed City expectations.
In her fourth-floor office at M&S’s Paddington HQ, surrounded by spring 10 product and a book called Women Want More perched on a nearby shelf, Bostock is certainly pleased with the quarter. “We put a few bucks in the bank,” she jokes, before pondering whether an outbreak of warm weather will stimulate weekend sales or whether sun-starved consumers will take to their gardens or the coast instead of the high street.
Bostock says that although consumer confidence improved in the fourth quarter, much of M&S’s recent success was down to the work it did on general merchandise before the downturn, which meant it was ready to capitalise on any upturn.
Under Bostock’s tenure there has been a focus on fashion newness. Womenswear is now phased 10 times a year, keeping the offer fresh for shoppers, who she describes as “on the newness drug”.
Last year, when M&S hit a recession-fuelled rocky patch, although they bought fewer items, shoppers still turned to the retailer for quality fashion, says Bostock. There was a shift to better and best product as consumers treated themselves when they did buy and recognised the value being provided, she explains.
Last year, Bostock also cut back the number of options in clothing at M&S by 15% to reduce duplication of product. She hopes that by the end of this year, that will have been reduced further, to a total of 20% over the two-year period.
The opening of overseas buying offices also helped improve business disciplines, putting M&S much closer to its source base and therefore enabling it to be more reactive, which paid off when it came to the downturn.
Bostock says she did not get heavy-handed with M&S’s suppliers through the recession, which the market expected would have been a temptation. She says the retailer worked with the supply base to improve efficiencies though.
“Did I sit down with the big suppliers and say ‘Come up with three or four points of margin?’ No,” she says, adding that much of the work M&S did with suppliers was “at their request”. In fact, the recession helped M&S, she says, because of the improvements that came with its focus on improving efficiencies.
Bostock has also exploited opportunities in menswear by upping its fashionability. She put Richard Price, who has a womenswear background, in charge in order to give collections more fashion sparkle. Says Bostock: “Women buy and influence [purchases of] menswear and they were saying ‘Can’t we have something a bit more exciting?’”
There were changes to M&S’s largest sub-brand Per Una too, following the departure of its founder George Davies. Bostock and her team took over the business, thought to be worth more than £500m to M&S, reducing prices by 20%, bringing in new fabrics and re-establishing its credentials and differentiating it from the rest of the M&S offer.
Says Bostock: “There were too many ‘old favourites’ that were disappointing. Per Una became more expensive than the rest of the [sub] brands and it didn’t really qualify.”
Evidence that the changes have been successful is increasingly showing through. “Over the last four to six weeks Per Una’s performance has been the best ever - it’s back on track,” says Bostock.
Passion for product
Fran Minogue, managing partner of headhunter Heidrick & Struggles, describes Bostock as “very down-to-earth and very approachable”.
“She’s very energetic, likes a challenge, absolutely loves product and never gets bored of it, but also really gets the commercial side,” she says.
It is her passion for product and understanding of the customer, proven with her strong track record at both Next and George at Asda, that prompted commentators to name her as a potential successor to M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose last year, when he was preparing to step down to become just chairman.
Bostock was among the internal candidates put on show to investors at last October’s infamous strategy update. “It was a funny old day,” is as much as she wants to say about that, the brevity of her comment probably revealing more than words would have done.
In the event, Morrisons chief executive Marc Bolland was named as M&S’s new boss. While pleased to be viewed as a candidate, Bostock says the chief executive’s role “wouldn’t have been right for me”.
One person who knows her agrees, saying that Bostock values her privacy and would not want to have to play such a public role.
Bostock says she has the freedom to run operations the way she wants. “Stuart is quite a hard taskmaster but he lets you get on with things” she says.
She has only met Bolland briefly so far, but is confident they will get on, “There’s a lot experience in this business and we have a lot of things planned. I’m sure we’ll give him confidence.”
If she can keep up the general merchandise like-for-likes, that will doubtless be the case.
2008 General merchandise director, M&S
2004 Joins Marks & Spencer as director of clothing
2001 Product director, George at Asda
1994 Product director for kidswear, Next