Future Proofing M&S

By Karl McKeever | 14.10.16

Marks and Spencer has the Perfect Opportunity to get Back on Track

Marks & Spencer is a high street institution, however it is clear that its bosses are planning some major changes so that it can survive, and thrive, for many more years to come. Earlier this year, new chief executive Steve Rowe announced that the firm would be undertaking a review into its store estate, which could signal the closure of some outlets.

But rather than being a bad news story, I see it as an opportunity for the brand to refocus its proposition, build on its strengths and offer much a better shopping experience for its customers.

In recent years, Marks and Spencer has had considerable personnel changes at a brand, creative and VM leadership level. Inevitably, this has, at times, led to instability, changes in focus and repeated and sometimes unnecessary change. With aspirations to emulate successful lifestyle brands, M&S sought to bring in new creative talent from the likes of Zara, Diesel and H&M.

Unfortunately, in some cases, these people did not last long. Perhaps they did not fully appreciate the business model, the scale and needs of M&S well enough, or it may have been that they could not make significant changes across the estate beyond a few high profile or concept stores. In essence, M&S was left with talented people in the wrong roles or without a vital support network around them to help them fulfill their potential.

In addition there might have been a clash between their ideas and those of other departmental managers, particularly long-serving ‘M&S lifers’. It seems to me that, overall, the company has struggled to get the right mix of people, whether at a leadership or an operational level, during the recruitment stage or as a result of internal structures or working relationships.

The fact that M&S is such an institution could also be the very thing that holds it back. Its size means that delivering visual merchandising in stores can resemble the drawn-out and bureaucratic processes of the EU Parliament. With multiple teams, including Business Unit managers and functional departments with different responsibilities and sometimes competing or uncoordinated objectives, it is difficult to align and co-ordinate strategies – and you can imagine how hard it is to deliver anything of substance.

A wrong, or poorly aligned, brand vision combined with constant changes in VM policy direction will undoubtedly leave store teams feeling confused. They may be unsure of what ‘good’ looks like and are likely to feel very de-motivated too.

In a bid to get things done, good ideas often get watered down, while others become stuck in the internal system or become irrelevant before they are rolled out to benefit customers. There are many examples where poorly thought-out initiatives have been implemented and quickly withdrawn, leaving behind the costly remnants of failed policy u-turns. This includes IT infrastructure interior design and shop fittings, POS and messaging, where vast amounts of time and money have been wasted.

Overall, the constant and erratic change has simply added to the layers of complexity and is at odds with what customers want and expect from M&S, namely consistency. Modifications, whether in store design, VM execution, signage or display, has all too often been piecemeal and it has rarely been comprehensively executed, reducing the perception of competence and quality. Some stores have been modernised, either fully, partly or just a cosmetic update – but many have not. The result is a business with a vastly mixed estate and it must be difficult for those who are involved in creating VM policy and communication.

Given all this, it is no wonder consumers are often left bewildered and their perception of the brand – whether positive or negative – will depend on which store they visit most frequently. It should be noted that this is not the case with the likes of Next, Debenhams, John Lewis or most supermarkets, where in-store brand delivery is much more consistent, and customers form an affinity with the brand proposition.

M&S has always been a mainstream brand, but by incorporating so many mixed and confusing messages, it is not communicating effectively with its customers. This is compounded by the fact that so many stores are still held back by years of underinvestment, confusing layouts, poor signage and uninspiring displays.

Of course, for many people, where M&S does get it right is the food department, and in fact it is almost like a different company. It is here that the brand has unlocked its potential, grown and built on its many strengths. With a reputation for quality, M&S has created a ‘world leader’ – successful convenience outlets at transit hubs, as well as larger mainly food stores at retail parks. This only serves to compound the national ‘deep sense of frustration’ at how M&S routinely misses the mark with its general merchandise offer season after season within its main line department stores.

It is clear that radical action is needed if M&S is to survive including a thorough shake-out of what is not working, including those who do not have the vision to drive the brand forward when it comes to VM, store improvement or developing consistency. Bosses also need to be bold, creating a consistent and distinct identity rather than trying to emulate other ‘misleading’ brands.

Ultimately, M&S needs to create an easy, engaging and inclusive shopping experience that is underpinned by high brand standards everyday. An aspirational policy of getting the basics right, should be embedded at all levels to regain the trust of both colleagues and customers.

With motivated teams, inspiring stores and a unified vision, I have no doubt that M&S will enjoy many successful years. And, for the greater good of British retail, for the many thousands of people the company employs and similarly proud suppliers that tirelessly serve the business – I sincerely hope it does.

Click here to read Karl’s contribution to Retail Week discussing the refocusing of M&S


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