It’s a tough time for the mid-market, so how are two of its prime movers looking in the run-up to Christmas? We visited M&S and Next’s Oxford Street stores, where the battle for festive sales is at its most intense
Having examined the value end of fashion retailing last week, it seemed to make sense to move up the scale a few notches and consider what’s happening in the mid-market (and yes, a pair of luxury retailers will follow in the next issue of Drapers). The mid-market remains the place where most people spend most of their money. It matters little whether it’s fashion or furniture; this is where you go to get a sense of how the economy is working, and it provides a benchmark against which almost every other part of retailing is compared.
Yet the consensus is that this part of the retail panorama is the one that is currently under the greatest pressure while value and luxury continue more or less unimpeded. Whatever your views of this, there are few more solid mid-market bedrocks than Marks & Spencer and Next, and if you want a barometer of how things are as we approach the final furlong in the pre-Christmas run-up, then this is where you should look.
Both of them cover more or less the same territory, offering menswear, womenswear, kidswear and homewares (and recently, a few garden implements in the case of Next’s store in Shoreham). And both of them have two major stores on Oxford Street.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Far more so than in last week’s value offers, at M&S and Next it’s party time, with stock to make the office jig go with a swing located close to the front doors.
For both retailers, it’s womenswear that greets shoppers at the entrance and with Next offering a range of sparkly and predominantly black blouses at under £30, as well as a smattering of shift dresses, it’s time to get out the 1980s back catalogue.
At M&S, a £99 sequined shift was catching the eyes of passing shoppers, although much of what is towards the front of the shop could readily be termed occasionwear, rather than just partywear. Velvet wide-leg trousers and velvet skirts look good at M&S, but why they can’t be put in a dedicated party area, rather than displayed as part of a commodity trouser or skirt offer, is something of a puzzle.
However, things fall apart a little bit when it comes to menswear in both shops. In M&S, the modus operandi seems to be to pull a few elements from the normal ranges, put them on some low white tables and then put a card bearing the legend “Christmas gifts” next to all of this. This could be seen at the entrance to the men’s shirt area and the shirts were the same as you’d expect to see at any other time of the year.
Similarly, if it’s Christmas, it must be novelty socks, and these were given pride of place in the men’s sock area.
At Next, there was a rather less obvious Christmas offer for men and colours were generally very muted – although it was hard to spot anything, so dense was the merchandising.
On paper, the visual merchandising at Next should be good. Wherever you look there are points of interest, whether it’s the nest of short, upright steel poles used to provide a display for shoes, or the male mannequins sitting on a porter’s trolley, seemingly waiting for something to happen.
The problem is, this is a deep and narrow store and in spite of having three floors to trade from, it is exceptionally busy and all the equipment is double height, which can make finding your way around difficult.
In fairness, the windows are among the best the mid-market has to offer at the moment and as the store has a high frontage, both genders have windows, as do kidswear and homewares.
Look up, and there’s even a gold bauble-adorned window above the main logo. In its windows, Next makes Christmas feel special.
The situation at M&S is almost the polar opposite. The window may be long, but in spite of what’s in store, only womenswear gets a real showing. It is also uncomplicated to the point of mild boredom with the red background looking a mite too traditional. Step indoors however and there is room to move. The displays, ranging from the illuminated mid-floor walls backing a single female mannequin, to the fake brick wall for men’s denim, do the job.
Given that most people on Oxford Street will pay both stores a visit during their Christmas peregrinations, there is more to see (because it is easier to see) in M&S than in Next.
Unlike Oxford Street’s value retailers, the mid-market is characterised by a real effort to keep equipment filled and displays tidy. Both retailers were up to the task. A small complaint might be that if the three assistants who were having a chat with the female security guard at the entrance to the Next store had been engaged in making sales, then more sales might have been made. Nonetheless, there was little to choose between the two stores.
This is a choice between the wide-open spaces M&S creates and Next’s efforts to provide a distinct feel for each floor and area.
It’s easy to spot that M&S has been busy trying to segment its various brands, but ultimately the size of each floor defeats this somewhat and you are left with long vistas with a central walkway ploughing its course through it all. Not so at Next, where the sheer density of the merchandising means you have to plot your own course if you want to navigate the store.
Next does, however, make much of the escalator that runs up the right-hand side of the shop, in contrast to the lackluster people-moving machinery in M&S.
Would I buy?
The answer is yes, and in both stores, although the methods of shopping would vary. Both have offers where almost every shopper will find something they can give as a gift or treat themselves to, but equally both will require something of an effort in order to get to the desired merchandise area.
On the evidence of both Next and M&S on east Oxford Street, shopping the mid-market is not a terribly glamorous affair. That said, reasonable merchandise at reasonable prices is what makes both stores worthy of a visit.
Totals: M&S 36/50
M&S Address 173 Oxford Street, London W1D
Number of floors Four
Store design Predominantly in-house
Next Address 201 Oxford Street, London W1D
Number of floors Three
Store design Dalziel + Pow
Reason for visiting Both stores are mid-market default choices