Is it time for Marks and Spencer to stop digging?

Marks and Spencer have been trying to dig their general merchandise business out of trouble for several years but for now it seems that the time has come to stop digging.

Doing what you have always done just does not give you a different result and that is what has happened with their fashion. New leadership and a focus on design did nothing more than rack up a huge research bill. A high tech leading edge website resulted in another huge bill and no return on investment. Identifying Mrs M&S only served to give M&S’s current customer a persona, that same customer that was not shopping clothing.

If M&S are not on the verge of a seismic shift in its business strategy, they should be.

One way of getting new direction is to bring in new leadership at the top level. And by bring in, we mean look outside the building’s walls for talent. Steve Rowe has yet to make any impact and although it is early days we question whether he has the experience from other retailers to challenge the status quo.

Food sales have been the saving grace of the British institution, with growth propping up the declining general merchandise sales, and in particular clothing.

Clothing was always the core of the business, a sign of good quality underwear, school wear, twin sets and separates. But that customer grew old and the next generation were more fashion orientated. M&S didn’t move with the times.

We know we are stating the obvious here to any commentator or casual observer of the retailer’s history, but what is astonishing is that this was not obvious to the business itself.

Archive by Alexa, Autograph, Best Of British, Classic, Indigo Collection, Limited Edition, M&S Collection, Per Una, Twiggy are the brands under which womenswear is marketed. Each one of those brands is marketed to a different target customer with a different sense of style and taste, at different points of maturity. And yet, each cannibalises the other with product cross over. Fewer brands is a welcome message from Steve Rose but we still feel they are spreading themselves to thin.

It feels like, by closing stores and cutting jobs without an accompanying announcement on a new strategy, M&S are giving in. Or rather, they are still digging, but this time a trench to retreat in to.

Reducing cost will take the pressure off the profit performance but this will only be short term, and will not save themselves rich. Get the offer sorted out before worrying about short term profit. If they don’t, they could regret giving up that space one day.

M&S need to revive their flagging clothing sales by identifying the customer that has the biggest spend available to them. She might be younger than the typical existing customer, she doesn’t want or need such a wide range of brands, she will want to see range and price architecture though, and she will identify with fashion but is not a fast fashion clone.

She is confident in her style, something that M&S should learn from, and yes she is an existing customer already only she currently walks past the clothing rails in search of food.

Stop her in her tracks with clothes that she wants to be seen in, ones she can style in her own way. Give her size and colour options, and prices she considers good value.

On that note, we will happily pass the spade back to M&S so that they can dig the foundations for a revived and renewed fashion offer.

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