Dear M&S, What We Want Is A lifestyle

M&S lifestyle 2

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.

M&S 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?

28 Comments

  • Leigh says:

    Absolutely!! I work in Canterbury and shop in their big branch however the busiest part is ALWAYS the food hall. And why don’t they line their dresses? I don’t want to spend the money on a dress that is the same price point as other stores that do line them, it makes such a difference.

  • Fiona says:

    What an astute analysis about building a brand that sells a lifestyle. Like you I love John Lewis but couldn’t quite work out why they are so good at what they do while M&S tries hard but doesn’t always pull it off. It is almost as if M&S management exist in some kind of bubble which makes them oblivious to how retailers around them have changed and left them behind. I have two additional suggestions – improve their shop assistants who sorely lag behind John Lewis in customer care and do something about their smaller branches to avoid looking like the place where clothes go to die. If they had that lifestyle aesthetic that might go some way to dealing with that.

  • sarah says:

    They do need to get rid of all those capsule collections, confusing on line and in the stores.
    I will not go to M and S (or John Lewis) for fashion but they have lost their way on basics.
    I mean classic t shirts, linen trousers, cotton nightdresses etc etc. They are too keen on trims, logos and colours that look cheap. That said, I have bought some fab indigo sports wear this year.

  • Sarah says:

    Couldn’t agree more, such a good précis for how they could get it right. For people my age (50s) there is a huge affection for M & S, it would be great to see it back on top form again.

  • Jocelyn says:

    Really interesting article. It’s all about lifestyle and connection. M&S needs to feel like a favourite magazine with a clear style where all the pieces fit together and I feel like I belong and ‘get’ the whole brand image. No use just copying John Lewis, M&S needs to find it’s own personality. Massive cull required on their clothing just way too much stuff, much of it non-descript. It is overwhelming. Less is more. A really good range of quality basics in a good choice of stylish colours and some new ranges that stand out from the crowd. I am sure we are all tired of seeing the same clothes everywhere we go. House of Fraser, Debenhams and even John Lewis carry the same brands. How about stocking some unknown brands from Denmark, Sweden or Italy? There’s some great stuff in Copenhagen shops. Good luck to the new chairman. What a task!

  • sue evans says:

    Get in there Jane — M&S need you.

  • Deborah Chowney says:

    M&S have forgotten that clothes not only have to look the part, but, just as importantly, feel good, they have to flatter us and fit our lives. It is not about price, but cost. I have M&S jackets, which are still as good as the day they were bought, which were not cheap, but cost per wear wise they are in the pennies now. I wandered around the Basingstoke store today, just because it was on the way back to the car park, and it had dismal displays, with poor lighting. We liked a couple of pieces (ignoring the skirts that are too short, the tops and dresses with no sleeves and the items made of odd materials), but have no confidence in how they will wear or wash, so decided against buying. Our confidence is low to zero in the brand and they need to think about what they need to do to win this back. The Alexa collection is frankly odd and if that is the best they could get from their archive then they need to let me loose on it!

  • Rebecca says:

    I absolutely agree with this. I always walk through the M&S clothing department and want to spend money on clothes but just don’t. The Indigo collection whilst being nice is always being browsed by women in their 70’s which puts me off and the Limited Collection is just too trend led.
    Your article is similar to that by Liberty London Girl at the beginning of the year and reinforces the point that there are thousands of women desperate for well made, classic and contemporary clothing at a reasonable price with money to spend… M&S just needs to get it right!

  • sue evans says:

    And the Alexa Chung collection for M&S is going to help because ? We care about Alexa Chung ? She know what the typical M&S customer wants ? Her name is synonymous with the target customer’s lifestyle ? No, didn’t think so either …….

  • Helena says:

    As soon as I walk into an M&S ( my local is Brighton but I get to see quite a few regional stores in the South East in my work travels) it feels like an old persons shop as soon as you step inside. Naff, old-fashioned displays, too much stock out (most of which seem to be size 16 upwards)’ some weird tannoy system that seems to be like something out of are you being served. Not aspirational in the least. Bad lighting too. Their food depts, as everyone has said, are great (and busy). It’s a shame because some of the M&S clothing is quite good. When I see their stuff PR’d I think I’ll go and have and look. But going to the shop is depressing – I often just turn around and walk straight out again. Sorry this is a long one – but they should also make some effort with their staff training and recruitment. This costs less than overhauling the interiors and would probably be one of the most transformational things they could do. Their staff are completely transactional. A bit like going to the supermarket. And this is the case in all the stores I’ve been into. Get the right people with the right attitude working there, train them and M&S would start seeing some better results in store.

  • Michele says:

    You two should be their consultants! I was only talking about M&S vs John Lewis to friends the other day. It seems that so many of us can see why M&S keep getting it wrong but they don’t listen or learn from other brands.

  • Faye says:

    They simply try to do too much and fail at the basics now. I sometimes like their Autograph range but find some of the fabric feels very poor quality – they also seem to make things with large shoulders but that could just be my issue. The nightwear for example, which i was looking at the other day, is typical of how they have lost their way – they have the basic ideas right but use cheap material or over fussy detailing. Agree about the customer service my mum was treated appallingly at Christmas in a number of different stores – the issue was that she didn’t have a gift receipt, although she had a normal receipt for a gift she was trying to return. Apparently if it you don’t have a gift receipt you have to accept whatever the price of the item is in the sale. Who knew?

  • Janice says:

    Alexa Chung might have been a good choice a few years ago but not now….the names they use to promote M&S clothes are so odd. Rosie who? Poor Twiggy looks dreadful in the frumpy clothes that bear her name on the site, too.

    I like some of their Best of British clothes but this season they seem to be oversize prints in peach…very few women look good in peach and nasty prints with repeats on a curtaining scale are never flattering…..Plus they seem to have big quality control and sizing consistency problems.

    I chatted to couple of mature assistants at Marble Arch M&S who said they used to be assigned to a dept so they built up expertise and knowledge but now they all have generic job roles and can be plonked anywhere in the store. All part of the deskilling of work which John Lewis seems to have avoided. I love it that the majority of Jonny Loulou’s staff (partners)really know their stuff. To me this is as important as the stock, otherwise I may as well just shop online.

    And don’t get me started on the pathetic Sparks card, with the John Lewis card you get coffee, cake and cashback straightaway.

  • Pam says:

    I was shocked to read of Faye’s experience so googled a query. I found this on the website thisismoney.co.uk –

    – Legally, only the person who bought the item has the right to exchange it or claim a refund but most stores allow for others to return goods, so long as they have proof of purchase.

    Top TIp: If you are buying something for someone else ask the assistant to write on the shop’s copy of the receipt that it is a gift and the name of the person it is for. Most shops will accepts this as a transferal of the return rights when you don’t have a gift receipt.

    If goods are faulty and you have lost the receipt all you have to do is provide proof of purchase, such as a cheque book stub or a credit card statement.

  • Ali Boyd says:

    I wrote to M&S a couple of times, complaining about inconsistent sizing across brands, garish colours – particularly with Per Una, and cheap fabrics. The replies were always defensive and clearly M&S were in denial. They try to please too many people and end up pleasing no-one. One of the most off-putting features of the brand for me now, are the awful images on the website – bell bottom trousers swinging high above black patent stilettos! They just get it so wrong, in ways that the competitors, like Boden, get it right.

  • Ceri says:

    I agree with all of the above. I’d like them to add a basics section to their range – with plainish good quality shirts (they do them for the men), skirts, dresses etc in a range of colours. They do it for t shirts but not for the rest. Recently I had to get myself a white shirt and black skirt combo for my graduation. Not things I normally wear and to be covered by the gown so I wasn’t too fussy. Plain and neat was my intended look. In a big store, I had a choice of one skirt and I just couldn’t bring myself to try on the see through poly cotton blouses which looked limp and greyish even on the hanger. I don’t want high fashion, but I’d be such a good customer if M&S could be relied upon for the wardrobe stalwarts.

  • Jennyff says:

    M&S do have some great clothes that pop up on blogs etc but they are so hard to find in the store concealed amongst such bland and mundane items. Likewise their home furnishings. The whole store layout is unappealing.

  • Laura says:

    It’s confusing in there. A mish mash, old-fashioned & frumpy clothes( in six awful colours usually too). It’s lost it’s way, no direction. I don’t know anyone who likes their clothes lines. Even my mum, who is 74, declares its awful but she feels compelled to go in and look out of habit. I only buy underwear and clothes for my kids at M&S.

  • Elaine says:

    I find the M&S attitude smug and arrogant. Remember when they didn’t “do” changing rooms, coffee shops or credit cards? Well in the end they had to do what the customer wanted. Let’s hope they stop churning out all those dreary, horrendous collections and go back to what they do best, great quality basic garments at a reasonable price.

  • Jane says:

    I agree – the store layout doesn’t help at all
    J x

  • Jane says:

    Good quality basics comes up again and again Ceri – but they seem impossible to find. A few years ago they did an “essentials” range, but apparently it didn’t work. Perhaps its time to try again!
    J x

  • Jane says:

    Don’t get me started on the website styling!!
    J x

  • Jane says:

    I really hope the M&S team are reading these comments

    J x

  • Jill Ballard says:

    I have been predicting the demise of BGS for several years. When was the last time you bought an item of clothing from there? I also droned on about M&S skating on unfashionably thin ice too as in the last 10 years l have bought only underwear from them, which is a huge shame as l was one of their best customers, especially when my children were small. My local store in Cambridge is awful, despite having a refit a few years ago. The stock is piled up in no sense or order. You are greeted at the entrance by Per Una, a very odd frilly selection of clothes. There are few dummies or outfit displayed, which l feel busy women need. I recently went into another store where the top trousers, scarf and necklace were all on model looked very tempting. The racks of boring skirts with no tops to go with them, they are upstairs, made my heart sink. It is such a Shame, M&S can you hear? If l am not buying in there and l am late 50’s and my daughters who are 20’s are not either then who is? My daughters and l left M&S and ended up spending our money in Mint Velvet, good quality and sizes, very chatty staff and no plastic bags just beautiful paper tote bags with grey velvet ribbon. We then checked out White Stuff, and got a free coffee and biscuit, and was told we could bring our dog next time! Shopping is, or should be a fun experience, the stress of not fitting into clothes is a worry in itself, so the interiors need to be calming and attractive. Yes we want to aspire to a lifestyle, l want to drink my coffee in a beautiful kitchen wearing luxurious leisure wear. Sadly it wont be from M&S (well apart from the coffee). My advice get the scandinavian designers in, the cool clean lines are just right for the age market, ditch the frills, and send Alexa Chung round the Top Shop!

  • Jill says:

    I have been predicting the demise of BHS for several years. When was the last time you bought an item of clothing from there? I also droned on about M&S skating on unfashionably thin ice too as in the last 10 years l have bought only underwear from them, which is a huge shame as l was one of their best customers, especially when my children were small. My local store in Cambridge is awful, despite having a refit a few years ago. The stock is piled up in no sense or order. You are greeted at the entrance by Per Una, a very odd frilly selection of clothes. There are few dummies or outfits displayed, which l feel busy women need. I recently went into a smaller clothing shop where the top, trousers, scarf and necklace were all styled on the model and looked very tempting. Back in Marks The racks that are groaning under the weight of boring skirts with no tops to go with them ( they are upstairs) made my heart sink. It is such a Shame, M&S can you hear? If l am not buying in there,and l am late 50’s, and my daughters who are 20’s, are not either, then who is? My daughter’s and l left M&S and ended up spending our money in Mint Velvet, good quality and sizes, very chatty staff and no plastic bags just beautiful paper tote bags with grey velvet ribbon. We then checked out White Stuff, and got a free coffee and biscuit, and was told we could bring our dog next time! Shopping is, or should be a fun experience, the stress of not fitting into clothes is a worry in itself, so the interiors need to be calming and attractive. Yes we want to aspire to a lifestyle, l want to drink my coffee in a beautiful kitchen wearing luxurious leisure wear. Sadly it wont be from M&S (well apart from the coffee). My advice get the scandinavian designers in, the cool clean lines are just right for the age market, ditch the frills, and send Alexa Chung round to Top Shop!

  • My friend and I cut through the Guildford branch to get from the back to the high street…And that sums it up! Occasionally we pause to point and laugh! Are you serious, who buys this stuff? Shapeless and lacking style; colours that do not hit the mark (pink that is wishy -washy, odd beiges, dull blues) no co-ordinating garments so you can buy an outfit; poor quality fabrics with far too many synthetics! I once asked a M & S assistant “why would you make a linen dress and line it with a plastic bag I.e. Polyester?” She seemed baffled by the question! and far too short for older women who prefer to just cover their knees! The only thing I would have considered buying was the green wrap leather skirt but at £150 too expensive. (M & S take a look at Oasis leather skirts!) I am 60 and a primary school teacher. I shop in And other stories, Oasis, Cos, TKMaxx.
    I NEVER buy anything from M&S.

  • Maeri says:

    A very timely article for me, since I just came back from lingering in John Lewis and stopped at M&S for food shopping on the way back. M&S will never be as upscale as John Lewis and the M&S food hall seems better and more invitingly lit than the clothing section, ironically. I agree with the other posters that M&S would be best sticking to basics, fashionably updated, in a wide range of sizes. M&S’s one real strength is that their clothing is available in larger sizes. So many times clothing stores re-invent themselves by making clothing too young and too small. This leaves out the majority of women.

  • Jan says:

    I would seriously consider buying from M & S if they included a collection of clothes designed and MADE in Britain. Beautiful cashmere from Scotland for example. I would pay a premium for this. I agree with the comments above. I too have written to them raising questions and have found the replies to be hugely defensive which is in contrast to the response I’ve had from some of their competitors. Also found the level of in-store service to be poor. Too many unhelpful assistants. Not a store I enjoy going into at all.

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