Iain Murray: Ballad of the colossus’ fall from the pantheon of retail

For those that have long observed M&S’s contempt for marketing, there is plenty of schadenfreude to relish. What else could the fallen giant expect?

This is a tragic tale of hubris, nemesis, schadenfreude, and a humdrum English word of Latin derivation, marketing.

It is the story of Marks & Spencer. Ah, dear old Marks and Sparks, what memories you evoke. You were not so much a chain of stores as a deity. Beyond criticism – your lawyers would see to that – you bestrode the worlds of retail and the City like a colossus. There was scarcely a breathing soul in this other Eden who was not clad in your underwear, warmed by your woollies, fed by your chickens.

Had an English Cole Porter been alive at that hour he would surely have sung: “You’re the tops, you’re a Botham century, you’re the tops, you’re a Buck House sentry/ From a penny bazaar you’ve sure come far, and how!/ You’re St Michael’s knickers, you’re chicken tikkas, you’re a sacred cow.”

And boy, didn’t you know it? I remember a visit to the head office in Baker Street in the Seventies on the day when yet another set of figures confirmed your inexorable climb into the stratosphere, and the air throughout that great mausoleum hung heavy with a pervasive smugness. Not that I would have dared say so. Indeed, I was quite shocked when the photographer who accompanied me confided that she couldn’t stand M&S. “So boring, so utilitarian, so dull.” How dare she? This was lese-majesty. No, worse than that, it was blasphemy. How was I to know that had she not been so good with a camera, she could have made a living as a jobbing prophet?

It is only now that nemesis has struck and schadenfreude capers amid the ashes that we are discovering just how deep the hubris ran. When Mrs Annette Johnstone, 59, a shareholder and a devoted customer, wrote an exasperated letter to the chief executive complaining that M&S no longer stocked classic clothing lines, nor listened to its customers, she received in reply a two-line letter, a picture of a pair of elderly grey-haired ladies modelling M&S “leisurewear” and a copy of Saga, the magazine for the over 50s.

When another customer, Barbara Whitaker of Buckinghamshire, wrote to say that M&S didn’t sell enough big sizes, she too received a “fobbing-off” letter accompanied by a magazine article on “Slimming for Summer”.

That there is nothing to distinguish between M&S, the titan of the High Street before whose reputation all heads once were bowed, and Fawlty Towers would be funny were it not so tragic. If you were to write complaining that the buttons on your M&S shirt had all fallen off, would they send you an article on sewing? If, as is now the case according to Mrs Patricia Foster of Berkshire, M&S’s size-eight sweaters have sleeves that reach the knuckles while the rest almost reaches the knees, should smaller shoppers expect to be sent an article on corrective surgery?

This extraordinary approach to customer relations is the antithesis of marketing, a word that for many decades was unknown to M&S, or, if not unknown, loftily unheeded.

M&S always knew what was best for its patrons. Call it instinct, call it divine revelation, call it what you will, but it dispensed with the irksome task of going out and asking people what they wanted – the process that your ordinary, mortal, retailer, calls marketing.

M&S didn’t have the time or space for changing rooms or public washrooms in its stores – or anywhere to sit and enjoy a coffee. It did not accept credit cards other than its own; it eschewed the vulgar device known as advertising; it had no need for imaginative merchandising. When you think about it, it was amazing it got away with it for so long.

Maybe it was because it was able to live on the accumulated fat of goodwill going right back to the post-war years of austerity and rationing, when no one minded wearing the identical v-necked sweater to a thousand other people, and if you did, you could always return it, no questions asked. And wasn’t M&S marvellous to its staff? They got free chiropody, you know. And hair-dos.

During all that time, unseen by the outside world, the giant’s arteries were hardening, its reactions dulling, as it succumbed to terminal bureaucracy. When, at last, it fell over, as dotards do, it snapped at those trying to help it to its feet. “You want classic clothes for the over-50s?” it growled. “Read this magazine, it tells you where to buy a stairlift and how you can have your bath converted.”

And so, M&S finally came out and said what its critics had long suspected it truly felt: the customer is always wrong. Or at any rate, M&S is always right and there’s a raspberry for anyone who dares to say different.

After all those years of neglect, it’s hardly surprising that it finds advertising a devilishly tricky business, hence the lady with the enormous bottom whose idea of normality is to run naked up a hillside. If there is one abiding lesson to be learned from the sorry story of the fallen deity it is that in the pantheon of the business world, the god of marketing is not to be mocked.


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