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5 February 2001updated 15 Jun 2021 12:41pm

My mum could have saved M&S

We are allowing global branding to destroy a vital part of Britain's heritage

By Stefan Stern

I used to go out with a girl who worked for Marks & Spencer, but she wouldn’t let me try anything on. Ancient jokes like that one, for which I apologise, confirm the special place that M&S holds in the public’s imagination. Substitute “Matalan” or “Gap” in that sentence and the humour, such as it was, is gone.

We have all shopped at Marks & Spencer. Schoolchildren have been fed with and clothed in M&S products; husbands have been sent out to work dressed top-to-toe in M&S; wives (and girlfriends and daughters) have been clad, intimately and often outwardly, too, in M&S gear.

But now, it seems, we are turning our backs on good old Marks & Spencer. The company’s market share has crumbled. Billion-pound profits have been cut in half. What has happened?

Business analysts tell a simple story about what they think has gone wrong. “Complacency,” they say. Too much inflexible control from the top. A failure to adapt to protect a solid niche between low-cost and upmarket competitors.

Is there any more to it than that? I decided to consult a focus group – my mother. She brought me up on M&S. Never was there a more faithful customer. My mother told me that the problems at M&S arose “when reliability became rigidity”. That insight could have saved the company millions in consultancy fees.

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In the past, shopping at M&S was a pleasure, not just because of the quality of the products, but because it felt like a safe and sensible thing to do. You knew you wouldn’t get ripped off. You knew that you would look presentable, or would eat well, if you stuck to the St Michael label.

In our more eager, more competitive times, “presentable” is apparently not good enough. We should be trying to look cool, smart, fashionable.

So M&S has fallen victim to the burgeoning, unrestrained desires of the emboldened, aspirational shopper. The haves are out there, credit cards at the ready, intent on serious con-spicuous consumption. The difficulties of Marks & Spencer are a symbol of our changing values, all part of a continuing late-1990s trend: “old” is out, “new” is in. History and social heritage count for little. It is time to embrace our glittering future.

In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein has described the extent to which we are all victims of global branding, a fearsome commercial operation that obliterates difference, makes every high street around the world look and feel the same, and intimidates us into feelings of inadequacy if the labels we wear don’t live up to the standards of the fashion gurus.

Marks & Spencer offered a safe haven from the march of the brands. It was the closest you could get to anti-consumerist consumption. It was clean, morally superior, and civilised.

Until the harsher aspects of global competition kicked in, M&S famously sourced 90 per cent or more of its clothing in the UK. That the firm has finally started playing the same cost-cutting game as other retailers has been bad news for the UK’s textile workers, and has led to fierce protests. Over many years, M&S alone supported thousands of workers in this country with its purchasing policy.

But now, we cool, sophisticated people turn our noses up at M&S’s doorstep. We go either downmarket in search of “bargains” to Matalan or Tesco, or upmarket to Gap, Joseph or elite designer stores. Why? Because we think we’re supposed to.

But neglecting M&S does a disservice both to the store and to ourselves. We are too careless of our heritage: think what timeless qualities and values we are denying future generations. And what will student debating societies have to talk about if they cannot resort to the traditional standby motion – “This House believes that Marks & Spencer has done more for civilisation than Marx and Spenser”?

Now is the time for all good men, and women, to come to the aid of M&S.

Men: Does your fragile little ego demand the prop of designer labels when you could enjoy the sensible, value-for-money offerings of the M&S menswear department? Are you trying to deny the sheer practicality of the polyester/cotton blend?

Women: how can you casually dismiss the store you have relied on so heavily in the past, the store that has provided food for your table and clothes for your children? Is it not time to abandon those unwise, fancy pieces of underwear that, let’s face it, look good only on the pertest of behinds? Far better the traditional “Harvest Festival” knickers – all is safely gathered in.

Shopping at M&S is a rite of passage, part of what it means to be British. Just look at the tourists still heading resolutely straight from the airport to the prestigious Marble Arch store in London. What is it that they value in M&S that we are somehow unable to see?

The Christmas sales figures at M&S were a disappointment. The firm still has a great deal to do to recover its former glorious position in the high street. But as I sit here in my new Italian merino wool jumper (very nice, thank you, £35 and widely admired) and my extremely comfortable chinos with Lycra (also £35, very good value), I hope that the corner is finally being turned. With its new advertising slogan – “Exclusively for everyone” – M&S is getting back to where it once belonged. Go there again now, while shops last.

Stefan Stern writes for FTdynamo.com, a management website

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