So the new M&S chief executive Steve Rowe sounds promising, after his first press statement attributed the brand’s declining clothing sales to a lack of style.”We have not been as stylish as customers wanted us to be, we have not had the availability of product when they wanted it and need to make sure we have the right product in the right place in terms of our ranges.”
So far so good – stylish product in the right size at a reasonable price, sounds like just what we want – but just how does he intend to do it? There is much speculation as to whether he might get rid of some of the capsule clothing ranges such as Per Una, Classic, Indigo, Limited Edition or Autograph, which would make sense as some of them may have run their course. But the poor design and buying teams have been through so many changes in the name of re-invention over the last few years, surely the answer is bigger than just a few new clothing brands.
Laura Craik from The Telegraph suggests falling figures are due to new smaller brands such as Finery, Me & Em and Winser London snapping at the bigger, less agile M&S’s heels, as their social media and strong online presence mean that it’s much easier for them to respond to evolving trends and create cohesive statements for their target customers.
The owner of Me & Em, Clare Hornby thinks the secret of the brands success is their “under the radar” subtle approach. Which I have no doubt is true – as their pared down athleisure inspired looks blend casual and formal wear in a non scary, very wearable way. Which of course is completely do-able, as they have a tiny range and much higher price points than M&S. So while I take Laura Craik’s point that a number of smaller brands are taking business from M&S, I think it’s an unfair comparison.
What makes this new breed of brands so interesting is while they take on board current trends, they don’t slavishly follow catwalk looks and all have a strong aesthetic and a focused point of view. They know who they are and they stick to it – they understand their customer profile and offer them an aspirational lifestyle.
A while ago I went into the huge new M&S just outside York with my mum and daughter – we were faced with a display of dresses as we entered the shop that were clearly “inspired” by the recent Chloe collection. Neither my mum or daughter (83 and 19) could understand what they were looking at and thought they looked hideous – I got it – but it didn’t make me want to buy anything. And here lies the problem – all too often M&S are trying (and often failing) to appeal to me, my mum and my daughter with their clothing!
My mum does shop there, I want to shop there and my daughter definitely doesn’t want to shop there – not even for underwear – not when there are far more glamorous options. We do however, all want to shop in John Lewis and love nothing more than a mooch around, starting with the homeware, then the excellent beauty dept, followed by a stroll round the clothes (where surprisingly, I often find things I like) and onto the food hall. It keeps us all happy and we could spend hours in there – and as someone once said (on Twitter) nothing bad could ever happen in John Lewis.
So why do John Lewis get it right and M&S don’t? They are both department stores, both British, both have similar customer profiles (the whole of the UK) and both have thoroughly uninspiring shop fits. The main difference is of course, that John Lewis have the benefit of carrying a variety of brands as well as their own – therefore making it possible for product differentiation which clearly appeals to a wide variety of customer profiles.
Its easy to understand why my mum and I like John Lewis – but what about my daughter. She feels the same affection and loyalty for the brand as we do and will happily wander round the whole of the lovely York store with us, but only wants to go to M&S if we’re going to the food department.
Everyone loves the M&S food department don’t they. It feels modern, relevant and aspirational and even if you could afford to do your whole weekly food shop there, it would still feel like a treat. I always spend far more than I had intended, as there are always new and interesting things to try. Current food trends are integrated with old favourites and classic items stay reassuringly good. Even the tv adverts are inspiring. In short the M&S food hall sells us a lifestyle – and here (in my opinion) is where I think they should be heading.
Stores like M&S are still making money on clothing – they’re just not making as much money as they would like – they still expect sales to rise year on year in the way that they did back in the day when we didn’t have anything else to buy. Now we have our homes, technology, exercise classes, hobbies and eating out, to spend our money on. Yes we want new clothes too – but we see them as part of a much bigger picture – nowadays what we aspire to is a lifestyle.
Style isn’t just about clothes any more, it’s about the food we eat, the flowers we buy, the colour of our cushions, the coffee we drink and how we post it on Instagram. Social media means we have a mood board of our perfect lifestyle in our heads and we want the brands we interact with to reflect this.
And here lies the difference between John Lewis and M&S. When I go into John Lewis I may not love everything in the store – but I do have a sense of who they are and what they stand for. They have an aesthetic and a point of view – they are functional yet aspirational, classic yet contemporary and almost always ‘on brand’.
And here’s where I think M&S need to go. They need to stop thinking about clothing as a separate entity and start building a brand that sells a lifestyle – they need a point of view and a taste level and they need to be uncompromising – then we will start to believe them again – a bit like we do with their food.
What do you think?