ALEXANDRA SHULMAN: The style stars that gave Marks back its Sparks… It’s no surprise M&S thrives when it shines a laser-sharp focus on its core customer
It’s certainly been a very long and winding road — but M&S is back on track. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the past decade that its results have been disappointing and its general mood borderline catastrophic.
Sales were down; the ability to transfer to an online shopping economy far too slow; fashion out of touch; food too expensive; and the stores simply too old and bleak. Change, they would announce, was in progress. But it was always jam tomorrow.
Now the outlook has changed. So what is going right? Perhaps it’s no surprise that M&S thrives when it shines a laser-sharp focus on its core customer.
In clothing customers have snapped up 343,000 supersoft crew neck jumpers, a style which comes in a choice of 17 colours for £17.50, and close to half a million high-waisted jeggings at the same price.
Nobody could place either of these items in the pantheon of 2023 fashion must-haves, but that’s not the point.
Marks and Spencer has brought in major names including actor Hannah Waddingham (pictured)
M&S has sold close to half a million high-waisted jeggings at just £17.50
READ MORE: How Marks & Spencer’s fortunes were turned around by a shelf-stacker who made it to the top
They are what the M&S customer wants to buy and therefore the decision to freeze prices for these and other favourite items during a time many other shop price tags trigger a sharp intake of breath, is a shrewd one.
Fortunately, the clothing team, led by the brilliant Maddy Evans, will be very aware that to stick only to the tried and trusted would be fatal and I would guess that it is the mix of the new fashion pieces with the well-priced staples that will be leading its clothing success.
Evans, who studied textiles at Central Saint Martins in London, joined M&S from Topshop in 2019 as head of womenswear buying. She was promoted to overall head of womenswear in August last year.
Take the excellent choice of actress Sienna Miller, 41, as the face of the autumn campaign. She is not a household name like Holly Willoughby, but she is well enough known to be recognisable and will be a personality who the 40-ish customer can aspire to.
The actress looks desirably youthful but not impossibly so. And she may have driven a customer who still feels M&S is a touch dowdy, to give the store’s fashion a try.
The fact that a more directional £29.50 denim midi skirt is among the bestsellers (28,000 sold) would suggest so.
Fashion can be tricky for M&S since it’s tough to get the balance right between of-the-moment seasonal styles and evergreen staples.
When it hits the sweet spot, though, with pieces that feel just fashionable enough rather than some of the more shouty, fashion publicity fodder, the cash tills are clearly ringing.
Fashion can be tricky for M&S since it’s tough to get the balance right between of-the-moment seasonal styles and evergreen staples
M&S now has pieces that feel just fashionable enough rather than some of the more shouty, fashion publicity fodder
Although good design and keen pricing will be a major factor in its success, it is M&S’s new ability to get its act together on the technology front that will be shifting product
A few weeks ago I visited a store in search of the perfect navy crew neck jumper. I failed to find exactly what I wanted — M&S, you are not alone, I haven’t found my dream item anywhere — but I was sorely tempted by a checked wool Jaegar boyfriend coat and may now buy it online.
And I wish I’d seen its fast-selling velvet single-breasted blazer online (£69) before buying one at six times the price somewhere else.
Although good design and keen pricing will be a major factor in its success, it is M&S’s new ability to get its act together on the technology front that will be shifting product, too.
While some stores are still pretty grim with terrible lighting, unappealing windows and often lackadaisical staff, it has made big improvements in online shopping — its click and collect business is thriving and so are sales through its app.
Now, I’d just like it to improve the buttons on their cardigans and lose the M&S logo on its denim. And… and… There’s always more we all expect from this titan of shops, but it’s time for congratulations.
As the best-loved retailer, a thriving M&S has a halo effect, reflecting a feelgood factor over the High Street — and, frankly, we can all do with some of that.
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