Four fifths of UK consumers want M&S to survive on the high street, despite retailer’s clothing sales fall

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British consumers want Marks & Spencer (M&S) to remain on UK high streets, despite the retailer reporting an 8.9% fall in clothing sales in the first quarter, new research reveals. Retail marketing specialist Live & Breathe found eight out 10 (81%) wanted M&S to stick around, rising to 83% among women and 87% of those aged 55 plus.

At the same time, Starcount, the consumer data insight company, has found that M&S is failing to engage new fashion consumers because it is turning its strategies towards the discount high street shopper, when appealing also to trendy fashion insiders through targeted brand collaborations could help it significantly penetrate the UK’s women’s fashion audience.

Live & Breathe’s study of 1,000 UK consumers was commissioned to coincide with the publication of Marks & Spencer’s first financial results since the appointment of Steve Rowe as CEO.

Nick Gray, MD of Live & Breathe, said: “Steve Rowe was handed a poisoned chalice, particularly regarding M&S clothing, which is seriously in need of a new format. Shopper expectations are different now; they want high volume, reasonable price and fast fashion – brands like Zara.

“Rowe needs to step back and focus on the basics. M&S is too broad at present and trying to be all things to all people. He needs to change industry commentators’ opinions and disseminate down from there.

“But most importantly, M&S needs to ignore the board, ignore the City – which focuses heavily on short term performance – and needs to show us all that it’s in it for the long haul by going through the rocky years and using these to re-establish as a stronger player, much as Levi’s did. The high street is still facing casualties and as we’ve learnt in the past, nostalgia isn’t enough. The nation clearly wants M&S to survive but it won’t if it doesn’t drastically rethink its approach – especially when it comes to clothing.”

The survey also asked shoppers what they thought of the ‘Mrs M&S’ persona that Rowe recently used to describe his customer base. Although he was slated in the press and on social media for ‘typecasting’ his shoppers, the research actually found that almost half (44%) don’t object to being typecast in this way and 22% don’t feel that his remarks were typecasting at all.

Gray said: “Although consumers weren’t as offended by Mr Rowe’s remarks as some might have thought, it’s an outdated approach to try and pigeonhole people in that way. We’re all individuals and modern retailers have to understand that. There’s an immense amount of goodwill and intent for M&S to succeed, but it needs to act on that now before it runs out.”

Starcount found M&S is most popular among sensible shoppers, keen on high street department stores and supermarkets, demonstrating, through the brands they follow, a practical, reserved, and realistic attitude to fashion. Within this segment, which accounts for 12.8% of the women’s fashion market, M&S has a 46% penetration rate.

Although its fashion followers have been in decline, M&S has recently been making ground amongst ‘Fashion Insiders’. These are people who take fashion extremely seriously, showing a distinct love for magazines that showcase the latest trends in high fashion. In May, of M&S’s new followers, 19% were ‘Fashion Insiders’ versus a usual uptake of between 8 and 10% each month over the past six months.

The rise in ‘Fashion Insiders’ comes after heavy promotion, in April, of M&S’s Alexa Chung range. Starcount ranks Alexa Chung as the seventh most important influencer for ‘Fashion Insider’s. To continue appealing to this segment, M&S could collaborate with one or more of the top 10 influencers for Fashion Insiders, such as Hilary Alexander, Stella McCartney, Mary Portas, Henry Holland or Victoria Beckham.

M&S did well with Alexa Chung, but her range clearly had an appeal specific to the ‘Fashion Insider’ consumer group. To reverse its ecent decline in the fashion market, M&S needs to focus on other fashion segments, in particular ‘Investment-Piece Buyers’ and ‘Cultured Trendsetters’, which between them account for over a quarter of women’s fashion consumers.

M&S currently has very little support amongst these segments, which are made up of people who favour the more ‘on-trend’ and higher-end fashion brands. Within these segment, M&S has a 4.2% and 6.0% penetration rate, respectively, compared with the 13.4% and 13.8% of the total fashion market that these segments represent.

To increase its appeal to these segments, M&S should look towards its influencers and see if it could collaborate with one or more of them. For ‘Investment-Piece Buyers’, the top five female influencers are Alexa Chung, Millie Mackintosh, Alexandra Felstead, Cara Delevingne, and Lucy Watson, said Starcount. The introduction of the Alexa Chung range did see a slight increase in ‘Investment-Piece Buyers’ as a percentage of new followers for M&S, accounting for 6% in April and 9% in May, versus an average of 4% for the six months prior. Engaging the other four influencers could help boost M&S’s popularity in this segment.

For ‘Cultured Trendsetters’, the most important five female influencers in the UK include Victoria Beckham, Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby – all of whom could make suitable brand collaborators.

Clive Humby, chief data scientist at Starcount, said: “With the fashion market in decline for the first time in six years, it’s never been more important for fashion brands to understand who their consumers are and what they want. News this week of Marks and Spencer’s clothing sales plunge in the first quarter of 2016 shows just how out of touch the retailer is with its core consumer base.

“The findings from Starcount data analysis have debunked the idea that M&S should be focusing less on trends and more on discount prices – on the contrary, it suggests that fashion insiders and trendsetters are the very consumers M&S needs to attract in order to improve market share. Our data shows that M&S is most popular amongst ‘Shopping Realists’, who are less interested in trends. But in order to reverse its recent decline in popularity, M&S needs to be focusing on also attracting the more on-trend consumer types.

“Fashion brands should not view their customer base as one homogenous group. Our data analysis breaks down audiences into specific consumer segments, helping brands understand how to tailor their marketing and products to all types of customers and potential customers.”