Blackfriar: M&S has become a jack of all trades and master of none

M&S Collection.
M&S Collection.
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Marks & Spencer has struggled for years to turnaround the fortunes of its underperforming clothing range.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, M&S’s proposition was clear - functional, quality clothing at decent prices and a nod to catwalk fashion that you could trust.

It offered a one stop shop - pretty frocks, well tailored trousers, tops that fitted and suits that could survive any job interview.

It wasn’t racy, but it served a purpose.

But now M&S is trying to reach too wide an audience and fails to actually appeal to any demographic.

While other retailers such as Asos and Top Shop deftly target younger shoppers and Bonmarche is clearly aimed at the over 50s, M&S has no clear core customer. It is very hard for a retailer to appeal to twenty somethings and women in their eighties.

It has become a jack of all trades and master of none.

Meanwhile it charges prices that you’d expect to see in much savvier stores such as Next and Zara.

John Ibbotson, director of retail consultancy Retail Vision, ​summed it up:​ ​“M&S has run out of excuses. No amount of stammering about the mild winter or the weak ​p​ound can mask the fact that these results are nothing less than awful.

“For years the brand’s successful food range provided a fig leaf that spared the blushes of its underperforming clothes ranges. No longer – stalling food sales and profit over the past year have revealed the full, naked weakness of the brand’s unappealing clothing lines.​“​

A woman in her thirties doesn’t want to wear the same dress as a woman in her sixties.

Meanwhile shoppers in their fifties want to avoid looking like mutton dressed as lamb by turning up to an event in the same outfit as their daughters.

M&S has tried to get round this by launching Per Una for younger shoppers and Autograph for older, affluent customers, but there is no clear delineation.

Meanwhile the M&S Collection label is hardly aspirational. Many shoppers will cut the label out if there is any chance of it being seen.

M&S needs to work out exactly what target market each of its clothing brands aspire to.

It has managed to do this with lingerie so it shouldn’t be that difficult. Everyone loves M&S underwear. It’s written into our psyches. From practical to the Rosie collection, there really is something for everyone.

The point with M&S lingerie is there is no mistaking which garments are aimed at which shopper. The sturdy collection is at one end of the lingerie department and the frothy lace is at the other.

M&S needs to apply the same logic to its clothing ranges. Older women don’t want to be bothered with skimpy outfits and younger women don’t want to look at clothes their mother would wear.

Blackfriar was pretty unimpressed to discover that Energy Secretary Greg Clark has never switched energy provider because he said it was too much “hassle”.

It’s a bit like being Education Secretary but not bothering to visit any schools when your child reaches school age.

Then it was pointed out that Blackfriar has never switched energy provider either so this was rather hypocritical.

So on a quiet day in the office, I gave it a go.

The first point of call was the uSwitch website. This however was a bit baffling as it was unclear whether you’d have to pay a switching fee.

There was a moment when I considered forgetting the whole thing and making a cup of tea instead.

But then I noticed that uSwitch offers a phone service that can talk you through the whole thing.

It took exactly 26 minutes from start to finish and a very nice chap called Les at uSwitch informed me that I will save £214 a year.

That’s not bad for less than half an hour’s work.

So what are you waiting for? Stop dithering and save yourself some money.