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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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