Last week, Marks & Spencer revealed that like-for-like sales of general merchandise in the UK fell 6.8% in the first quarter.
And at the heart of this lacklustre performance was womenswear, generally perceived to be suffering from “merchandising issues”, although the market was informed that things would be better in the autumn.
Back in May, Next unveiled first quarter results that were more benign, although sales at its Directory business appeared to have saved the retail day. Nevertheless, the contrasting fortunes of the two companies are pretty stark and it seemed worthwhile therefore to look at how both outfits are dealing with the little matter of selling womenswear in their flagships.
The results are not entirely reflective of the physical reality at either retailer, or the nature of the offers facing shoppers as they wander in. There is less clear blue water between the two than some might imagine and although the two retailers were compared last year, much of that water has passed under the bridge.
Address: Marks & Spencer, 458 Oxford Street, W1C; Next, 201-203 Oxford Street, W1D
Total UK stores: Marks & Spencer – 703; Next – more than 500 in the UK and Republic of Ireland
01 - VISUAL MERCHANDISING
Marks & Spencer 7/10 Next 4/10
M&S has “segmented” the in-house offer on the ground floor at the Marble Arch store. The difference between various brands – Autograph, Per Una, Limited Collection and suchlike – was clear. Upstairs, things were less clear-cut, although the displays in the lingerie department were impressive.
At Next, visual merchandising was, at best, difficult to discern. The mid-shop rails were so tightly pressed together that making your way towards the back of the shop was akin to storming the Bastille. In consequence, spotting the mannequin displays proved tricky, or indeed anything much else on the womenswear ground floor beyond the initial Olympics-themed vignette at the entrance.
02 - CONCEPT
Marks & Spencer 7/10 Next 4/10
The concept at the Next store east of Oxford Circus was created by consultancy Dalziel & Pow but on the women’s floor you would be pressed to register much of it, other than the rough stone wall vista that hugs the wall next to the escalator. A design update seems overdue.
At M&S, the four-lane highway through the middle of the ground floor means brands in this white box are arranged Tube station-style along its length. It is a somewhat military approach but easy to read. The lingerie department is better than any of its competitors but the rest of the first floor is a mildly undifferentiated mass.
03 - SERVICE
Marks & Spencer 5/10 Next 5/10
Staff were in short supply at Next, but there was a greeter at the door doing a good job of dispensing smiles, goodwill and making shoppers feel good about having walked in.
At M&S, there were more bodies on the floor. Although none of them appeared to be approaching shoppers, if an enquiry was made, it was dealt with promptly and helpfully.
Both stores major on self selection, so it would be foolish to expect the level of service required for an indie, but something close to acknowledging shoppers would be useful beyond the first five metres through the door.
04 - PRODUCT
Marks & Spencer 6/10 Next 7/10
The problem with an offer the size of M&S womenswear at Marble Arch is that it really is expected to be all things to all people. From value to fringe designer, multi-buys to costly single items, young to old, expectations are high. It’s true, some of the merchandise did look more aimed at the ‘mature’ shopper, but the appeal of the ground floor was greater than many give the retailer credit for. The first floor, however, was dull.
At Next, things appeared younger, although the Olympic-themed merchandise was basic. The Geri Halliwell-style sequined Union Jack minidress at £199 was a showstopper, although it would be hard to see who might want to pay the price for a style of this kind.
05 - VERDICT - Mass, but not total, appeal
M&S and Next, the two high street stalwarts, continue to exert a siren call to those walking along Oxford Street. That said, both have their shortcomings. Some of the M&S range veers dangerously close towards being safe and bland, while at Next, if you can take the time to plough your way through the store, there may be good things but they may be hard to find.
M&S wins with its window scheme, particularly as it has installed screens with moving images that capture the eyes of passing tourists. Next has well-priced fashion but visual merchandising standards are more than a mild issue – blink and you could miss it.
Marks & Spencer 25/40