Taste scores in food hall but still eludes M&S in fashion

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M&S has created a very nice niche for itself in food, but has is yet to find its fashion sense.

Shoppers go to M&S when they want a dinner that feels like a treat.

Chief executive Marc Bolland said that nearly half of its shoppers go in to buy a meal for tonight and something nice for breakfast. Frequently they have no idea what they’re going to buy. It’s a totally different mindset to normal grocery shopping.

M&S has carved a niche for itself in this market. Mr Bolland claims the group has levels of innovation that are five times higher than rivals.

Its chefs recently created the fastest-selling dessert that M&S has ever stocked – the M&S Belgian Chocolate Jaffa Sphere.

On its first day, the spheres had sold out by 3pm and M&S had to double production to keep up with demand.

So why can’t M&S recreate this in clothing?

It is certainly seeing improvements after years of decline. Sales of dresses rose 18 per cent as it focused on more fashionable prints and an experiment with a specialist jeans area resulted in an 11 per cent sales increase.

Garments such as the much-talked about 1970s-style suede skirt and the pink Duster coat, which both sold out within hours, have done much to boost M&S in the fashion stakes.

This season the fashion press have hailed a pink and cream leopard print coat (£159), a pair of suede knee high boots (£99) and a black velvet jumpsuit (£59) as the next “suede skirt” must-have items.

But these high fashion purchases make up a tiny proportion of the M&S clothing range.

The problem is that M&S is still seen as your Mum’s choice. Indeed when Blackfriar returned from the M&S press conference, a colleague said that her Mum had just bought her entire holiday wardrobe for a forthcoming cruise from M&S.

As Bonmarche, the over 50s womenswear retailer, has shown women of all ages want to look fashionable. M&S needs to bin the beige slacks for good.

However this is not an insurmountable problem.

As analyst Phil Dorrell at Retail Remedy says, M&S needs to find its clothing mojo rather than hoping that its food business will bail out clothing.

“Food remains the hero of the piece, but these results at least hint that M&S is returning to what it should be – a clothing retailer with a successful sideline in food, rather than a successful food retailer with a moribund clothing business holding it back,” said Mr Dorrell.

Fashion is an area that Asda has managed to conquer – as seen by the stellar growth of its George brand.

George offers shoppers bang on trend clothes at prices that M&S can only dream of. OK, the garments may not last 10 years, but these are items that are bought to be worn for a year or so.

However Asda appears to be struggling despite its strong George sales. On Tuesday it reported its worst sales fall in more than 20 years and said it can see no improvement in sight as shoppers switch to discount rivals Aldi and Lidl.

The Leeds-based supermarket chain blamed short-term fixes by its main rivals for much of the decline as rival chains offer £5 off vouchers to win back shoppers.

Asda’s chief executive Andy Clarke said this approach is not sustainable. “Vouchering is a gimmick, a short-term ploy for three months or 12 months,” he said. “Vouchering destroys trust in the long term. The customer in the end will vote with their feet.”

Mr Clarke’s bosses at Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, have faith in his leadership. Asda needs to sit tight and ride out this unsustainable trend.

As soon as the likes of Morrisons stop voucher offers, customers will shop elsewhere. It’s an issue that new Morrisons boss David Potts will have to tackle.

Asda will reap the benefits of its everyday low pricing in the long run. It has won the trust of shoppers and that is something that will stand it in good stead when the market returns to normal.