M&S boss: We’ve got to fix confusing Sparks loyalty scheme

The transformation of M&S’s loyalty programme, which has been criticised for being too confusing to use, will be spearheaded by the retailer’s first chief data officer who will join the business in the next few weeks.

Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer’s (M&S) loyalty programme is too confusing to use and doesn’t reward customers enough, the retailer’s boss admits, adding that ‘fixing’ Sparks is at the top of its to-do list as part of its digital transformation.

Speaking at a press conference this morning (7 November), chief executive Steve Rowe said while customers engage with Sparks they don’t understand the points and it is too discount-heavy in its current form.

“The key thing here is we’ve got a good product that our customers want and like. We’re giving them enough points but not giving them enough of a treat because it’s all about discounts and that’s not what we want to do,” Rowe told Marketing Week.

“We’re not sure how long it’s going to take [to fix]. At the top of Jeremy [Pee]’s job list is to restart Sparks properly.”

Jeremy Pee is joining M&S as its first chief digital and data officer in December. Rowe said it will be his job to “join up the dots” but that it won’t be a “short-term fix”.

The fundamental part of data science [is] to make sure you’re asking good questions to solve problems more accurately than human beings can.

Steve Rowe, Marks & Spencer

“In terms of using [Sparks] data, the key thing is to join it up and help customers find the merchandise they want,” Rowe said. “We’ve not done enough of that and I think Jeremy’s going to learn how to do more of that. Not just in clothing, but in our food business and banking service product.”

READ MORE: M&S ditches blockbuster ads for Holly Willoughby in digital-first Christmas campaign

M&S’s credit card has been one of the most popular in the UK for a number of years and Rowe sees a “real advantage” in that data.

“We’ve just not necessarily used it properly,” he said, adding that there is a clear opportunity to join this data up online too.

Digital transformation is more than online

In M&S’s results for the half year ending 29 September, online sales were up 9.1%, with 20.4% of UK clothing & home now taking place on M&S.com. Over the next five years, M&S is looking to move a third of its business online as part of a lengthy transformation programme; however, Rowe said digitising M&S goes beyond online.

“It’s about embracing new technologies and new ways of working and embedding them into the business,” he said. “Making sure we have access to the best talent – whether it’s Jeremy or data scientists – we need to bring them into the business. We need to encourage entrepreneurial thinking.”

READ MORE: M&S shifts spotlight to value in biggest festive food campaign to date

In the summer, M&S revealed plans to set up a data academy to teach staff across the business about data science and machine learning. The 18-month programme, which is looking to build the most “data-literate leadership team in retail” kicked off last week, marking the start of the biggest digital investment M&S has made in its staff to-date.

“What I’m looking to do if for people to use the tools that are already available in the business to solve critical problems,” Rowe said. “That’s the fundamental part of data science, to make sure you’re asking good questions to solve problems more accurately than human beings can.”

More than 1,000 staff from every retail function of the business – including marketing and customer service – will go through the course in the next year.

READ MORE: M&S is transforming its marketing team into specialists rather than generalists

M&S has also brought 40 Microsoft engineers into the business as it experiments with technology that will allow it to track, manage and replenish stock levels in real-time.

Using Microsoft’s cognitive services, M&S believes it will be able to satisfy demand by having the right products in the right places for its customers and ultimately improve in-store design. It is aiming for every screen in-store to be able to make sense of data as well as manage it.

Hide Comments4 Show Comments
  • Chris Arnold 7 Nov 2018 at 3:42 pm

    I am not sure how you can launch a scheme and get it wrong? Surely they tested it on real people. How many consultants were used? Or was it all just theory? Seems there hasn’t been enough customer centric thinking and too much belief in technology. Robots, programmes and AI do not think like real people, despite the hyped up sales pitch of the companies selling it. The danger of technology is to overstate its ability and lose touch with consumer reality. The term ‘think outside the tech box’ is now doing the rounds. The number one cause of companies failing – 54% of top 500 brands in the last 15 years – is poor customer centric thinking. Put the customer before the technology – technology that meets their needs – don’t expect the customer to adapt to technology. We also shouldn’t forget that people are emotional consumers (tech people just don’t get that) so all the tech in the world is no substitute for the power of a brand they love and trust.

  • Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 8 Nov 2018 at 8:41 am

    Sparks is too complicated. I can’t be bothered with loyalty cards, but my wife is a huge fan and she likes schemes like Sainsbury and Boots where you earn real money not points. I can see the point of nominating a charity though.

    Oh and M&S, if you read this, please fix your self-serve tills. Your latest disposable bags contain much more plastic than they used to (dunno how this is anything but bad for the environment when they’re only going to get used as bin-liners). So when I try to use one, your till detects the extra weight, thinks I’m using my own bag, and displays the wrong prompt. I have to lie and agree that I *am* using my own bag, to proceed. Should be a simple enough fix – just adjust the weight threshold?

  • TONY THORNE 11 Nov 2018 at 3:07 pm

    I abandoned Sparks once I worked out how poorly it actually rewards customers and how clumsily it promotes discounts on unattractive lines, fails to offer any meaningful money-back, fails to innovate in terms of charitable opportunities, fails as everyone says in terms of clarity. It needs not tweaking but re-making.

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