M&S might be looking abroad for growth but it still has a marketing job to do in the UK

Marks & Spencer is taking another punt at the European retail market following its its decision to pull back in 2001. It has plans to open stores selling both its food and clothes ranges in Brussels and Amsterdam and is looking for sites in Spain and Italy.


It’s also planning a French expansion with the aim of opening 30 food stores in Paris over the next three years through a franchise partnership that could also be rolled out to other French cities as well as in Italy and Spain.

As if that was not enough, altogether M&S hopes to open 250 stores across markets as varied as India, Russia, China and the Middle East, taking its total outside the UK to more than 700. The main aim? To expand overseas profits by 40 per cent over the next three years.

Currently M&S’s international business makes up barely 10 per cent of its total. That suggests room for growth, particularly if M&S can play on its British heritage, a strong draw to overseas consumers. The uproar from customers when it left Europe 13 years ago suggests an appetite for its products that chief executive Bolland is no doubt keen to exploit.

Yet this is also clearly a strategy aimed at providing some relief from talk of its UK business, which continues to underperform. Food might be doing well, with growth outstripping the wider market, but general merchandise continues to flag.

At its fourth quarter results next week (10 April) analysts expect M&S to post its 11th straight quarter of declining underlying sales in general merchandise. It is losing market share faster than its rivals, with Bernstein pegging its share at 11.36 per cent in the six months to 16 February, down from 11.18 per cent a year ago.

The continuing sales problems suggests M&S’s marketing is not resonating with customers. The “Leading Ladies” campaign meant to help consumers identify with the brand and its products leaves most people confused.

It updated that campaign last week, but the new line-up is no less confusing than the old. Emma Thompson and Annie Lennox sit alongside Rita Ora. I can’t think of any Ora fan that would shop in M&S or, come to think of it, any M&S shopper that would even know who she is.

This is M&S’s problem. In the UK it is trying to be all things to all people, trying to appeal to the younger and the older shopper, the fashionable and those with a more pedestrian taste in clothes.

M&S must find its audience, make its products for them and then reflect that in its marketing strategy. It still has a job to do in the UK to get that message across. Until it does the international plans, while of interest, won’t provide M&S with the relief it is hoping for.

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