Where did it all go wrong for Marks and Sparks?

IT ROSE from the most humble of beginnings as a Leeds penny bazaar to become a powerhouse of the British High Street.

M&S fashions have fallen from favour
M&S fashions have fallen from favour

But concerns are growing for Marks & Spencer after the company has reported dire trading results for its general merchandise arm, which includes fashion and homeware, after it was beset by online delivery problems and unseasonable weather conditions in the run up to Christmas.

Figures for the 13 weeks to December 27 saw like-for-like sales down 5.8 per cent - the 14th consecutive quarter the figure has fallen. Shares slumped by more than 4 per cent, adding to the headache for chief executive Marc Bolland, the former Morrisons boss who joined M&S in 2010.

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But where has it all gone wrong? M&S said mild weather in October and November impacted winter clothing sales, and unprecedented Black Friday demand combined with “unsatisfactory performance” at its distribution centre in Leicestershire put delays of up to five days on online deliveries.

M&S fashions have fallen from favour

Consumer expert Kate Hardcastle said the company had forgotten that “customer is queen” and Mr Bolland needed to “completely re-energise” womenswear and homewear if the company was to get back on track.

“If you look back at the ‘90s and early 2000s Marks & Spencer was a powerhouse, the flagship of British retail. You waited for their advert at Christmas and the Marks name carried a seal of approval,” she said. “‘Your M&S’ is their tagline but it isn’t anymore, and that’s the problem - it’s so far removed from what the customer wants.”

Marks & Spencer’s problems are as basic as store layout, she said, with “no synergy” between the different ranges and departments. There is also little consistency, she said. Go into any John Lewis store this Christmas, and you would be confronted with row upon row of penguins, the star of their hugely successful TV advert, but at M&S stores there was “no link whatsoever” to their fairytale inspired ad campaign. In contrast to M&S’s figures, John Lewis’s sales were up 4.8 per cent for the same period, while Next saw 2.9 per cent growth.

“It’s not rocket science, it’s about good quality clothes you can wear to work, jeans and a cashmere top. Good quality at a good price is what people want, but at the moment, they’re not getting it,” Ms Hardcastle said. “And the more people get out of the habit of shopping at M&S, the worse it will get.”

M&S fashions have fallen from favour

Professor Cathy Barnes, director of the Retail Institute at Leeds Beckett University, said that while unseasonable weather and the distribution problems will have had a knock-on effect, the fact that it is the 14th consecutive quarter of decline showed it was “certainly not the whole picture”.

She said the company had failed to grasp the intricacies of online retail, with companies like Next are reaping the rewards. But for her, the main problem with M&S is more intrinsic.

“People struggle to work out what M&S stands for - are they fashion, or are they classic for the more mature lady?” she said. “They need to be clear on the market they are delivering to, and deliver to that market well. They are starting to do some of that now, with Marc Bolland, and hopefully that will be the turning point for them, but they have an amazing brand and a lot of loyalty, and they should be doing better.”