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M&S looks to autumn for end to chilly sales

Marks & Spencer’s autumn 13 collection has been praised by industry experts – but they warn that more must be done if the retailer is to stop losing market share.

Style director Belinda Earl this week unveiled her first full collection since joining M&S, garnering positive responses from press and analysts.  Much was made of improvements to the quality of fabrics and seams, innovations such as ‘high-heel tights’ with gel pockets and a refocus on the 45-plus shopper.

Chief executive Marc Bolland and Earl acknowledged the collection marked M&S’s “first steps” towards wooing back the heartland customer, but declined to comment on targets or whether the collection could stem the declines seen in clothing over the past couple of years.

Earl told Drapers: “This is a step in our future direction – the start of a journey. This is about getting our foundations right in terms of the collection.”

But industry commentators suggested this was not enough to halt the retailer’s sales declines in clothing. One supplier said that M&S had bought higher-quality products “at volume”, which was a “promising start”, but warned it was essential to retain this focus.

“There’s a desire to upgrade quality, but there’s still a battle between what they want and what they say they can afford. Marc has made lots of statements about quality – now he has to deliver.”

Independent analyst Nick Bubb added: “It’s easy to make a collection look good in a showroom but hard to make it stand out in the stores. They have lost many ranges in this way, so history would teach me to be sceptical.

“They are already giving excuses, but whether that will wash with investors I don’t know […] I’d be surprised if sales improved, given the competition and economy – but if they don’t I would expect to see one or two job losses.”

Verdict analyst Honor Westnedge was enthusiastic about the quality and style of the collection, but agreed that store environment was a major challenge.

“They have invested in quality and the ranges are well executed, but it’s difficult to get that across in physical stores where they are diluted by a sea of merchandise.

“Certainly, Marc has proven that he and his team have made the initial steps, but they still have challenges ahead. The new product looked good – it’s just about how it translates in a store environment.”

The business is now running staff engagement programmes to ensure sales assistants are better equipped to offer high-level customer service.

“It’s about all parts of the customer experience: how we tell the story, communicate the looks throughout the store and in windows, and how we sell the items individually,” Earl added.

“This is about persuading existing customers to shop in the fashion division and also about enticing people back.”

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