Has the penny dropped at last for Marks and Spencer?

As Marks & Spencer reported its best clothing sales in more than three years, Chris Bond asks whether the retail giant is back on track in the fashion stakes.

70s-style retro fashions have helped boost M&S clothing sales. (photo credit: Marks & Spencer).

IF a week is a long time in politics, then a couple of months can feel like an eternity in the dizzying world of retail.

One minute you’re flavour of the month and everything is going swimmingly and the next you’re dropped faster than you can say “Jeremy Clarkson”.

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You only have to look at some of the big names that have disappeared from our high streets in recent years to appreciate the fine margins that exist between success and failure.

Back in January it was all doom and gloom for Marks & Spencer. This cornerstone of the British retail industry had just 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 had seen like-for-like sales down 5.8 per cent – the 14th consecutive quarter the figure had fallen. It had fashion critics rushing to pass comment on the reasons behind the slump and ask where it had all gone wrong for this famous high street institution.

M&S bosses said mild weather in October and November impacted on winter clothing sales, and unprecedented Black Friday demand combined with “unsatisfactory performance” at its distribution centre in the Midlands put delays of up to five days on online deliveries.

Speaking at the time, consumer expert Kate Hardcastle said the company had forgotten the “customer is queen” and that the company needed to “completely re-energise” womenswear if it 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.”

It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing M&S boss Marc Bolland would have wanted to hear and would have been compounded by the fact that John Lewis’s sales were up 4.8 per cent for the same period, while Next saw 2.9 per cent growth.

But fast forward three months and yesterday’s announcement that the company had seen a 0.7 per cent rise in like-for-like sales at its general merchandise arm must have been music to his ears.

This might not sound like much, and Bolland refused to say that the under-pressure retailer had turned the corner, but the fact its clothing division registered its first rise in sales in more than three years, suggests M&S has regained some of its self confidence.

Bolland also highlighted “high single-digit” like-for-like sales growth at both its upmarket Autograph and Limited clothing brands. The figures are better than expected, which is good news for the store with customers responding positively to changes in both style and product quality.

If it’s been something of a back to basics exercise for M&S then the chain has been boosted by sales of its 1970s-style suede skirts which have been particularly strong. Retro fashion has been around for a long time now but get it right and you can start a trend, rather than simply following one.

Back in autumn last year when M&S launched its make-or-break fashion collections for this spring, it was pinning a lot of its hopes on flashbacks to the decade that gave us the film Love Story and TV favourite Starsky and Hutch.

The design team had an almost impossibly fine line to tread between offering its customers trend-inspired, statement fashion and the sort of safe, wearable clothes that the more traditional shopper wished to see.

This meant that Spring 2015 was an important collection for the retail giant.

Clothing sales had been sliding for more than three years until a ray of light suddenly shone in the form of a 1.3 per cent rise in womenswear in the first five months of last year.

But then came a slump in September, which was blamed on the unseasonably warm weather.

M&S has a long-standing reputation for showcasing British craftsmanship and customer loyalty, but by the same token it has also divided opinion. I remember as sulky youngsters me and my brother protesting at being dragged round its store in Newcastle in case we bumped into one of our classmates (which to an impressionable 13 year-old would have felt like the end of the world).

Now I know young teenage boys are not its target audience, but knowing who is and giving them the style and quality they want has long been M&S’s raison d’etre.

However, the retail world has changed dramatically over the past decade. Online shopping has been a game-changer and has coincided with the emergence of new brands and labels eager to muscle in on M&S’s lucrative target market, namely the over-35s in terms of fashion.

There’s no doubt that M&S – which began life as a haberdashers’ stall at Kirkgate Market in Leeds – considers fashion to be at the heart of its business. Unfortunately, the M&S customer has been increasingly less convinced about the fashion on offer, at least until now.

Wander down to its food halls and business is booming. Customers can’t get enough of those in-store £10 dine-in deals and Gastropub meals. But when it comes to fashion they haven’t been buying with the same enthusiasm.

It’s not as if bosses have been idly sitting around doing nothing. Bolland set up a new clothing team in 2012 but has so far failed to deliver a sustained increase in sales, and on the occasions when products have proven a hit, it has often struggled to replenish supplies fast enough before shopper interest subsided.

There have also been the TV ads featuring fashion figures like Twiggy and Myleene Klass which cleverly joined the generational divide and helped broaden its appeal.

At the same time, though, it has had to contend with the emergence of Next, its main rival in terms of size and share, which has enjoyed online success while M&S was late getting it right.

Then there are the more niche stores such as Mint Velvet, which is targeting the 40-plus shoppers very successfully at the higher end of the market, and brands like Tu at Sainsburys, which is chipping away at the cheaper end.

But it’s not just about the clothes themselves. One of the criticisms aimed at it by customers was that too much was crammed into stores, which turned shopping for clothes into a bit of a bun fight.

M&S is not a “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” sort of store and it’s something that bosses have taken on board by taking time to improve the layout and making the shopping experience a more pleasurable one.

The story of M&S is a compelling one. It rose from humble beginnings to become an international brand and has been a pillar of our shopping experience for generations.

From mini skirts and flares, to power dresses and tweed jackets it has dressed men, women and children in the countless trends that have come and gone over the years.

It has deflected all the slings and arrows of outrageous fads that fashion can throw in its direction. It might not please all the people, all of the time, but maybe it shouldn’t try.

In a world that feels like it’s changing at an ever accelerating pace, perhaps the fact that it is still here and flourishing after all these years is an achievement in itself.

Spark returns to M&S fashion: Page 17.