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

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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.