Jayne Dowle: New look that fails to suit customers or follow the changing trends in retail

I CAN just see my dad in a pair of white jumbo cords, a cashmere roll-neck and a safari jacket at the weekend. He’s one of the few men I know who still shops regularly in Marks & Spencer. Yet, if this is what the retailer thinks he wants to wear in his leisure time, he’ll be straight off to Debenhams the next time he needs a new jumper.

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The launch of the new menswear range could not have come at a more pivotal moment for the company, which has suffered its third disappointing Christmas in a row. Sales figures expected today are predicted to show a drop of up to 1.5 per cent on general merchandise, which includes clothing.

The figures tell their own story. It’s the lack of confidence behind them which will really worry shareholders. When clothing rivals such as H&M and Gap cut tickets by up to 60 per cent before Christmas, a jittery M&S weighed in with discounts of almost a third for its “Mega Day” promotion. The impact on profits is not hard to calculate.

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It’s just another shop having a hard time. There are plenty of those. Why should we concern ourselves? It’s not our responsibility to halt the decline.That task lies at the door of the chief executive, Marc Bolland, and people such as Tony O’Connor, head of menswear design. He’s just one of a raft of individuals brought in over the past few years to revamp the brand.

I’d argue though that we can’t afford to ignore the perilous state Marks & Spencer finds itself in. It says so much, not just about our changing shopping habits, but about the disconnection between those who make the decisions about what we find on our high street and those who actually 
use it.

Take a wander round any provincial branch on a weekday afternoon. The shoppers are mostly retired folk like my dad. They want good quality basics. Sober colours. A forgiving fit. They don’t want silk bow ties and the kind of checked jackets they sent to the charity shop a couple of decades ago. However, these are the kind of items O’Connor
thinks chaps desire. Maybe the kind of chaps he hangs out with do.

You can’t, however, base an entire fashion range on personal taste and hero-worship of Sir Roger Moore. Where does that leave the core customer to whom the company professes to give so much respect? The irony is that men have been the most loyal M&S core customers of all. When women started to desert the store, driven away by racks of lurex jumpers and hippy skirts, it was the blokes who steadfastly refused to buy their socks from anywhere else. Alienating this particular demographic is commercial suicide.

It also shows a lack of understanding about changing tastes, values and habits. Much is made of the stiff competition M&S faces from discount retailers such as Primark and Matalan. It’s not the whole story though. Look around that town centre on a weekday afternoon. In even the most economically-challenged town, you’ll see menswear shops stuffed with designer names; Bench, Belstaff, Ralph Lauren and the like. In my hometown of Barnsley there are more independent stores selling high-end gear for men than there are for women. And you won’t get much change from £100 for a shirt in most of them.

Does M&S really think that its provincial shopper is going to be tempted through its doors to purchase an outfit that makes them look like Doctor Who? I don’t think so. Especially when independent retailers will go the extra mile for customers and even offer discounts for cash. This kind of lack of understanding really concerns me.

Ah, but what about the service? It’s the big thing M&S prides itself on. What kind of service is it though when the shop shuts its changing rooms at the height of the sales? Twitter was a-buzz with disgruntled customers who couldn’t even try on the bargains they found. What kind of message does a sign saying “To stop queues building up that might disrupt your shopping, the changing rooms will be closed over the sales period” send to those who actually want to 
spend their money? That the customer most certainly does not come first.

Compare this to Next which offered a free next-day delivery service to its stores for the first time this Christmas. Customers could order online, pop in, try on their items and purchase if satisfied. Attempt that in certain M&S branches and you will be met with a mumbled explanation that click and collect is only available in selected outlets. 
This is simply not reactive enough.

If this retailer is to survive and prosper, it not only has to think about what customers want. It also has to come up with innovative and practical solutions to meet their evolving shopping needs.

This is a challenge for every shop on the high street. And it’s where Marks & Spencer should be leading the way, not trailing behind in a sea of discounts and wrong directions.