Marks & Spencer: great food, bad clothes

Sales are up, but clothing needs a rethink.

With total UK sales up by 2.6 per cent, the headline on today’s M&S results is that the company has delivered the strongest quarterly trading growth in two years. While this is true, such a statement belies a whole host of underlying issues; many of which are, as of yet, unresolved.

Despite the solid overall growth, there is a strong sense of déjà vu in the latest set of numbers: the polarised performance of falling clothing sales and rising food sales continues and seems to have become somewhat entrenched. Indeed, the polarisation is even sharper this quarter given the particularly robust uplift in food sales – an uplift which has saved M&S the embarrassment of a weaker set of trading results.

That this pattern has repeated itself over a relatively long period of time raises two critical questions: can the negative trend in clothing be reversed and, if so, what does M&S need to do to reverse it?

On the first point, it is almost impossible that M&S will ever go back to the pre-1998 heydays when its clothing market share was at its zenith. The market has changed too fundamentally since that time and the more fragmented landscape makes it impossible for a player of M&S’s configuration to take the share it once did. However, that does not mean to say that M&S’s market share could not be bigger and it certainly does not mean that M&S should accept recent declines in share as being inevitable. It has the potential to do much better; whether it has the will is another matter.

The fundamental problem with M&S is that it still thinks and behaves like a middle market clothing retailer of yesteryear. Many attempts have been made to shift this attitude and it would be unfair not to recognise that some progress has been made. However, old habits die hard and M&S’s middle market DNA still shows through in so many ways, especially on the product front.

There are two critical issues with product. The first is that there is a lack of targeting and empathy with core customers, which means that the offer is frequently not one that is seen as being "must have" – something that is now critical in clothing. The second problem relates to product merchandising. Although M&S’s newer stores are a significant improvement over what came before them, there is still a feel of drowning in a ‘sea of product’ which makes it hard for consumers to pick out key trends and styles. This method of merchandising continues to be out of step with the more segmented way in which many competitors present their offers and means that M&S often lacks the ‘"exclusivity" or "excitement" of rivals.

A further issue is M&S’s focus on the"value" part of its range, which we believe is too great and is an underlying symptom of a relatively weak offer and lack of confidence in clothing. While the market is undeniably more price sensitive, the key issue for consumers is value for money rather than just low prices. In the case of M&S, this is about adding value and interest to clothing ranges so that customers are willing to pay more. This, and not a focus on price, needs to be the direction of travel going forward.

With demand in a lacklustre state, the above would be enough of a problem if competition was static; however, other players have been aggressive both in expanding and in developing their ranges and propositions. In light of this, M&S seems to have been increasingly left behind. A prime example is John Lewis which has a strong customer overlap with M&S: the reinvigoration of its fashion offer might not have contributed much to M&S’s declining clothing share, but it – along with many other players – will have certainly nibbled away at it. Next has also improved its fashion credentials, as has Debenhams through its own brand offers; meanwhile, Primark continues to lead on price. Collectively, all of these players – and more – are putting the squeeze on M&S.

Interestingly, the food business provides a template for how M&S should approach clothing. Here M&S is unashamedly directional; it does not try to be all things to all men. The stance, while recognising the need to provide good value for money, is strongly skewed towards the premium end of the market. Brand segmentation is clear and innovation ensures that various parts of the range are regularly refreshed. All of this is supported by a marketing effort that creates customer interest and genuinely reflects the strengths of the proposition. All of these factors have contributed to an impressive market beating performance over the last quarter.

Overall, despite the lacklustre results, M&S remains a solid player and has significant potential. There are plans in place to remedy some of the issues inherent within the business, but the remainder of 2013 will need to be a year of delivery and action if the company is to turnaround its fortunes.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.