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Praise from the fashion press will not turn around M&S’s fortunes

It’s “style over substance” was the damning description given to me of Marks & Spencer’s website a few weeks ago from a one-time devotee of the brand who is now a frustrated ex-customer.

I had mentioned to her that I had wanted to see what striped shirts M&S had. Alas, earlier this month, the site did not offer that simple search function. I could search by colour, but I had to flick through solids and checks to find what I might have been interested in. I gave up.

I pointed out this more than minor defect to M&S while attending its recent press conference on its ecommerce strategy. I note that you now can search for striped shirts, so customers are listened to and progress is being made. It was a surprise, however, to learn that the company says it will take another four to six months for teething problems on the site, which was launched in February, to be sorted out. It took three years to develop this site.

Style over substance may prove to be the epitaph for the reign of M&S chief executive Marc Bolland, who this week presided over the annual results that showed another fall in profits. The City pages gave him a bruising, questioning - as we all do - when we will see a significant turnaround in womenswear sales. Bolland, a brand marketer by training, seems extraordinarily interested in positive coverage from the fashion consumer press. Quizzed on the Today programme about why M&S did not concentrate on food and abandon fashion, so customers would know what it stood for, his response was that the fashion press had been “unanimous” in its praise of the autumn 14 preview. Much as I respect my glossy colleagues, they will not convince many sensible British women to buy something they don’t like.

British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman was her usual adroit self on the subject of M&S in last Saturday’s Times magazine: “I don’t see the point of designing to please the fashion press. We can all rave about a Céline rip-off, but is it really the coat that we decide to buy in the end?”

That reference to the provenance of the pink coat from last autumn’s range was included in a remarkable seven-page feature in the magazine, which is the most high-profile example of M&S pushing for positive press this season.

The opening spread features an artfully posed line-up of M&S’s Belinda Earl (style director), Frances Russell (director of womenswear), Jo Hales (head buyer) and Queralt Ferrer (head designer, both from Autograph and Limited Edition), plus Karen Peacock (head designer) and Sally Ambrose (head buyer, both of Per Una and Indigo). The last three made the mag’s cover.

The rather cheesy headline reads: ‘Question: Why is the fashion crowd shopping in M&S again? Answer: These women’s clothes.’ The feature writer Louise France gave a more balanced and accurate view of the reality in her piece, which included journalist Sarah Mower comparing her local M&S store to something from the communist bloc and Mary Portas admitting the retailer is no longer on her radar, adding: “And I’m the age when it really should be.” Portas is 54 on May 28.

In its results press release, M&S claimed it was “reasserting leadership in quality and style”, which in itself is a statement lacking any real substance. Bolland definitely is under scrutiny, but headhunters say he is likely to have an easy time while the retailing roundabout focus is on the embattled chiefs at Tesco (Andy Clarke) and Morrisons (Dalton Philips). But when the heat inevitably is turned up again on Bolland, I suspect that another supermarket supremo - Justin King, the recently departed boss at Sainsbury’s - will be in the frame to be the next occupant of the hot seat at Paddington Basin.

Readers' comments (4)

  • M&S have never recovered from going downmarket some years back, as it felt it had to go cheaper to go forward, which was a terribly naive view and has left them in a slow downward spiral that it is unlikely to recover from.

    Bollard is no better than Stuart Rose, but the blame for me squarely lies with the latter, who for some reason is still a media darling who seems above criticism and rides the gravy train like a pro.

    M&S needs a huge kick up the backside. They don't know who their customer is and what they want. They should stop employing dull, corporate, bengal striped 'jobs for the boys' CEO's and get someone in who can see beyond the boardroom and get things moving.

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  • I think that this was the best summary of where M&S is. Having worked for them as a designer for 10 years in the eighties. I cant help but think that many of the good things about M&S have been lost. They have never and never will be a fashion icon - they don't have the customer base nor do they have the kudos.Even when I worked for them they wanted to be able to sell to customers they didn't have.In my days it was teenagers they wanted but never got. They never learn and whilst they are obsessed with fashion they will never win.

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  • Well said Eric. My small team could fix these problems within 12 months for M&S.

    Please suggest they contact No Place Like Holm for more information.

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  • M&S will never achieve a turn round in fashion, until the ambiance, lighting, racks, display cabinets etc are totally changed, so that shopping with them is a ‘happy’ experience. A total rethink/redesign as to how to sell their clothes. Come to my local shop at Newbury. Unappealing is hardly the word.

    VANESSA DENZA MBE

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