How can M&S revive its clothing fortunes?

After their first rise in five years, clothes sales at Marks & Spencer have once again slumped. So where is it going wrong? Grant Woodward reports.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was among the big names brought in to reverse Marks & Spencer's clothing fortunes.

TOP male supermodel David Gandy, actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and on-trend television presenter Alex Chung were the big guns whose glamorous looks were meant to halt Marks & Spencer’s slide in the style stakes and spearhead its revival.

Sadly for the high street giant it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Hot on the heels of their first rise in nearly five years of steady decline, clothing sales at the high street giant have once again slumped.

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The retailer has announced that its general merchandise like-for-like sales – predominantly clothing – fell 0.4 per cent in the 13 weeks to June 27.

Blamed on poor weather in May and June which dampened demand for its new spring and summer collections, the fall was less dramatic than the market was expecting but underlined the fact that its clothes sales remain what analyst Richard Hunter waggishly refers to as “the elephant in the changing room”.

Hunter, head of equities at Hargreaves Lansdown Stockbrokers, says that although there may be signs of some positive momentum now being established, clothing remains a worry.

“Whether M&S can ever return to former glories by enticing clothes shoppers back to its stores is arguably its largest challenge, even though the more recent experience implies at least a stabilisation of previously dropping numbers.”

David Harvey, a senior lecturer in marketing at Huddersfield University who specialises in consumer behaviour, believes the Leeds-born retailer’s troubles run much deeper than a simple weather-related blip.

“The core problem is the women’s clothing,” he says. “M&S will never be a fashion leader so what they should be doing is following just behind others on the same trend and doing it well.

“There are lots of customers out there want who want something that’s on-trend but not right at the cutting edge. Instead M&S are going out in all sorts of directions. They are trying to be too eclectic and don’t have a clear idea of who they are aiming at.”

He says that whilst the retailer boasts a number of ranges including Autograph and Per Una, there is too much inconsistency in terms of price points and sizes. It is also unclear which sector each is aimed at. In other words, customers are baffled.

“It can sometimes seem like a jumble sale when you go in and if you’re looking for a fairly standard item you can no longer be sure that it will be there and you will walk out with what you are looking for,” he adds.

“It’s a bit of a lucky dip. It’s trying to be too many things to too many people.

“The trouble is that they have been so off the ball for about 15 years they have lost a generation of women to the competition. In the past, before online shopping, they could be complacent, but Marks & Spencer is no longer the go-to destination for clothes that it once was.”

Announcing the disappointing sales figures at the annual shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday, under-pressure chief executive Marc Bolland said that the group expected to improve its margins by designing more of its apparel.

However, one female shareholder who had been a designer for M&S for 25 years until the mid 1990s, thought its new design team “needed to go back to the drawing board”.

“I could weep at some of the things I see,” she said. “Prints are ugly and vulgar. Why are necklines always too low? Why are polo necks always too high?”

She said she was a size 12, but could often fit into M&S sizes ranging from 8 to 16. She added: “That is because everything is cut the same, and they just sew different labels on the clothes at the factory.”

Her comments raised laughter from her fellow shareholders and, perhaps rather tellingly, no little applause.