Amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth at Marks & Spencer – not to mention the sharpening of knives and the whirring of revolving doors – one positive aspect of the story passes largely ignored. It is this: for once, the downtrodden middle class has bitten back. Spurned and rejected, it has exacted revenge – though, it has to be said, not without a salty tear in its eye.
Just a few years ago, M&S bestrode the high street like a gigantic gusset – which was appropriate since it was the unexampled purveyor of knickers to the nation. It was also the leading supplier of chickens which, if nothing else, demonstrated the breadth of both its ambition and achievement. But now the store is in trouble. Sales are down, the chairman has gone and there is a whiff of panic in the air. So what went wrong?
For a start, M&S let success go to its head. One only had to step through the doors of its Baker Street headquarters to smell the rich scent of hubris. It was the Ozymandias of the high street, inviting its competitors to look upon its works and despair.
In my opinion, for what it is worth, the seeds of the store’s downfall were sown back in the Sixties and Seventies with the emergence of a new, richer, more confident and egocentric generation of Britons. They wanted to look different from each other and were no longer happy to dress in the uniform styles supplied in his beneficence by St Michael.
Perhaps there was not much that M&S could do. In an age of smaller, fleet-footed fashion retailers, a chain of department stores with a presence in every high street, all selling the same range, was something of an anachronism. To stand a chance of competing, M&S had to be adaptable, quick-thinking and resolute; instead, it was smug, complacent and short-sighted. When it finally it sensed it was in trouble, it did all the wrong things, and in a hurry.
It called in management consultants (always a fatal indication of a lack of confidence), it appointed outsiders to the board with no experience of retailing (for example, it recruited a senior civil servant and put him in charge of men’s clothing), and it tinkered with merchandising rather than adopt the radical new look that was needed.
But worst of all, in its arrogance it turned away from its core customer base, which was, of course, Middle England. When one woman customer wrote to the store complaining that it did not supply clothes in a size that fitted her, she received a reply suggesting that she should lose weight. No doubt this amused the insufferable know-alls in Baker Street, but it is difficult to imagine any company with even the faintest idea of what it means to be a retailer exhibiting such petulant impertinence and scant regard for the meaning of marketing. Little wonder then that Middle England reluctantly turned its tweeded back on a shopkeeper that had grown too big for its boots and too supercilious for its own good.
Even now, as things drift from bad to worse, the company is making the same mistakes. It seems bent on attracting the custom of youth, even though it has long been plain that, to the teenage mind, there are few things more uncool than M&S.
Nor is there any sign of its building bridges with the middle classes. It is instructive to compare the television advertising of Waitrose with that of M&S. Whereas the former goes out of its way to evoke the solid, rural certainties – green fields, contented hens, sun-dappled tranquillity – that are the treasured mythology of Middle England, M&S ads feature a series of new Brits describing in estuary English, punctuated with salivating noises, the pleasures of the food hall.
But although M&S seems determined to tread the path to ruin, there is a nascent, shimmering rainbow on the horizon. Gloomy economists (a tautology if ever there was one) are beginning to whisper that, if all goes badly, we could return to the days of collapsing house prices and interest rates of ten per cent. And what a boon a that would be!
Just imagine the joys of impoverishment. Savers would get a decent return on their investment, first-time housebuyers would be admitted to the market, the roads would be freed of pinch-faced women haphazardly piloting four-wheel drives on the school run and superfluous jobs would be blown away like froth off the top of a pint.
The Worshipful Company of Personal Trainers, Lifestyle Gurus and Aromatherapists would be made to hand in its seal of office, the Guild of Master Dog Walkers, Nannies and Childminders would go the way of the cordwainers and wheelwrights, the Association of Celebrity Chefs, Gardeners and Hair Stylists would file for bankruptcy, and, best of all, the legions of second-rate builders and odd-job men who think they are worth &£300 a day would have to cancel their holidays in Ibiza.
And who knows, a genteel, down-on-its-uppers Middle England might rediscover an appetite for the good old utilitarian, sensible clothes sold by what was once its favourite store.