The news that clothing sales saw their biggest drop since 2008 has dialled up the volume on concerns over CEO Marc Bolland’s direction.
One angry shareholder allegedly dubbed him “the Bob Diamond of retail” at the retailer’s annual meeting. It was reported in the Daily Mail and seems to me a harsh judgement.
Part of the reason M&S’s performance hasn’t been better is that the strategy has come at the same time as a much worse economic downturn that anyone expected. More recently, the fall in women’s clothing sales in the last quarter can at least in part be blamed on the atrocious weather.
Yes, M&S is not doing as well as it should be doing, but that’s not to say the broad strategy it’s taking isn’t the right one.
Bolland was set on focusing on growing the retail brand overseas and shoving a rocket up its digital efforts.
On both of these, progress has been made. M&S re-entered the French market with great aplomb and its digital strength is growing with a new web platform expected later this year. M&S has made strides in making its business multichannel and in testing new platforms like SmartTV.
It’s very easy to say that online retailers such as Asos have left traditionalists like M&S behind and proved that building a digital business is easy-peasy. It has to be remembered though that Asos built its business and its brand from scratch in the digital era. The likes of M&S are faced with the challenge of retrofitting digital frameworks, systems and operations onto an already massive business with a well established traditional brand.
Bolland’s attentions also fell on improving the standing of its clothing ranges as fashion brands – he wants them to be brands in their own right – not just a retailer’s labels.
Cutting out the clutter in the clothing architecture and clarifying the identity of its own fashion brands was the right move. As was overhauling the store interiors to better showcase the brands but as it will be a while before this is rolled out to all stores, it’s far too early to write it off as a bad idea.
Alongside these shifts was a huge advertising push that exceeded M&S’s previous celebrity roster to star Ryan Reynolds and Rosie Huntington-Whitely.
M&S’s marketing is impressive, smart and executed to glossy perfection, but it just isn’t getting the message through that M&S is a style hot spot.
The Hollywood direction for the advertising was a bold move to make – but perhaps a step ahead of where customer perceptions are.
It sounds like just another of those cliched phrases uttered by marketing directors and their agency partners, there really is something to be said for “taking the customer on the journey with you”.
It’s difficult for a shopper to go from associating M&S with classic knitwear their mum wears to seeing Rosie Huntington-Whitely sashaying around in a sexy outfit fluttering her lashes at Ryan Reynolds.
Some of the pieces in M&S ranges are gloriously stylish, well made and beautifully fitting. I often walk through the Oxford Street branch and find myself coveting things until payday, but despite this M&S is never front of mind when I set out to shop.
To me, it’s not that M&S is missing a trick in the fashion world, it’s that there’s something disconnected between the retailer’s aspirations, its positioning and the messaging.
Marc Bolland confirmed to me several months ago that the A-list advertising direction was here to stay – I hope that this is still the case but there needs to be something to bridge how people have viewed M&S in the past with how M&S wants to be viewed in the future.