Some way to go to restore the true Magic & Sparkle

Helena Bonham-Carter in the M&S TV campaign
Helena Bonham-Carter in the M&S TV campaign
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THE only words spoken in this year’s lavish Marks & Spencer Christmas TV advert come from actress Helena Bonham Carter, whose disembodied head appears from behind a huge M&S green door.

Miss BC is clearly annoyed at being disturbed, but a little Magic & Sparkle soon captures her attention. “Ooh, love the shoes,” she says, indicating the red high heels on the feet of model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

Just four words, but they tell us much about where the focus of the High Street giant lies, as does the entire Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Wizard-of-Oz themed ad. Note which products this main Christmas commercial promotes. There’s almost no festive “This is M&S food” on the Mad Hatter’s tea table, even though the customer can’t get enough of it. There’s very little in the way of home furnishings and decorations either.

There are, however, several changes of outfit for Ms Huntington-Whiteley (including two lingerie shots) and for male supermodel David Gandy, leaving us in no doubt that M&S – which began its life as a haberdashers’ stall in Leeds Market – firmly considers fashion to be at the heart of its business.

Unfortunately, the M&S customer seems to be increasingly less convinced about the fashion on offer. Although total UK sales rose by 3.1 per cent over the six months to September, this growth did not come from clothes.

Last month, the company reported a 1.3 per cent fall in like-for-like clothing sales for the July to September quarter, the ninth successive decrease. Yet wander down to the food halls and business is booming, with like-for-like food sales up 3.2 per cent for the same quarter.

Customers can’t get enough of those in-store £10 dine-in deals and Gastropub meals. Why are they not buying the fashion with the same enthusiasm and confidence?

M&S is certainly trying hard to recapture that past confidence, with hopes now pinned on ex-Jaeger chief executive Belinda Earl, who was brought in a year ago as style director.

At the unveiling of the current autumn/winter range, Earl was keen to stress an improvement in quality and fabric, with linings and French seams, obviously feeling that this was what the customer desired first and foremost.

It is too soon to tell the range’s impact, but it was well received by the fashion press, who went crackers for a pink coat, which promptly sold out, was restocked (and sold out again).

With its new spring/summer ’14 collection, M&S is trying to rekindle enthusiasm, too. I went to see it in London and it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer skill and design brilliance, with well-interpreted international catwalk influences, clever detailing and wearable stand-out pieces at prices so worth it, they made me do a double-take. Even the more expensive pieces (there does seem to be a push towards high end fashion) seem reasonable compared with the equivalent standard elsewhere.

A few more sleeved must-have pieces wouldn’t go amiss, and there are a couple of crop tops I’m not sure I could envisage on any grown woman I know, but still – it was a triumph. The menswear is definitely worth investing in as well.

I have earmarked pieces to try. I just hope I can find them in store. This, I believe, is where M&S’s womenswear fashion gets lost in translation. There is too much product crammed in, for a start. Do there really have to be 28 (I counted when in a large Yorkshire store last week) of the same striped knit dress, sizes 8-18, on one rail? And why the sea of black trousers and skirts in the section called Classic Collection?

The dressed mannequins, which highlight those all-important key fashion pieces, and show how to wear them, are lost among groaning rails of fairly basic separates.

Take away at least half of it, I say, so the customer can see what’s available. Replenish as required. M&S products are worth giving space to – it’s not a “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” sort of store.

Meanwhile, sales are up at mid-market Next, aided no doubt by its established online business, but in-store too the retailer is clearly 
moving with the times, with a cool grey bleached-wood design that reminds of upmarket niche fashion and lifestyle companies such as The White Company and Jigsaw. In contrast, the backdrop and decor in many M&S stores are unimpressive, managing to combine blandness with the irritating jumble effect of a discount store.

M&S does try to address the fact that its customers are a diverse bunch by offering different, distinct labels – Autograph, Limited Collection, Per Una and so on.

Yet, in some stores, they all merge into messy confusion. Why not give each label its own department, clearly delineated, with its own staff, seating and dressing rooms? A central runway could highlight key fashion trends, worn by a select team of M&S celebrity ambassadors. Much better than being little more than a walkway through to the cafe or the food hall.

Perhaps we all expect too much of our favourite High Street store. Marks & Spencer is still the UK’s largest clothing retailer (Next is close behind), and with that comes the enormous challenge of trying to please all of the people, all of the time. M&S shows us that this simply is not possible.

But, what I love most about M&S is that it never stops trying.

New focus for famous brand

THE man tasked with reviving the fortunes of Marks & Spencer is Dutch-born Marc Bolland who was previously chief executive of Morrisons.

He has invested heavily in advertising campaigns, featuring stars like Dame Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham-Carter.

“M&S is a brand in the public eye. Everyone has a keen interest in how we behave and we benefit from extraordinary levels of public trust and goodwill,” he wrote in a recent article.

“Inevitably and rightly, we are subject to high levels of scrutiny as we earn that trust. When I took the role at M&S, I felt that the brand is bigger than the company and I’d love the opportunity to build the brand further.

“Over the past 130 years, M&S has been most successful when it has taken large steps forward. I want to build solid building blocks for the future.

“We are tackling two decades of underinvestment in IT systems and logistics network, overhauling these systems to provide a firm foundation for the company, as well as focusing on e-commerce and international.”