Marks & Spencer needs to reinvent its general merchandise offer to reverse declining sales and remain relevant to shoppers, according to leading retail commentators.
Speaking as the high street giant announced that its chief executive, Marc Bolland, is stepping down from the business after reporting a 5.8% fall in general merchandise sales, Tristan Rogers, CEO of global enterprise collaboration platform Concrete, said: “The negative press about Marc Bolland’s tenure at M&S is inevitable. GM sales have declined continuously. But what could he, or indeed anyone have really done? Is the department store a relevant concept anymore? Show me an example of one that is succeeding at the scale of M&S. Just like Waitrose, M&S has done well to “own” the luxury end of the food market, and it should continue to invest in a store format that customers need and want.”
According to Rogers, Marks & Spencer’s general merchandise floor plate and generalist clothing format is out of date.
“Smaller, more specialised concepts, perhaps even with a new name plate, where genuinely good quality, but reasonably priced continuity lines are stocked, could be with way forward; think along the lines of a British Uniqlo, or a cheaper Sunspel,” he said.
James McGregor, partner, Retail Remedy retail consultants, agreed. “M&S’s general merchandise sales suffered from poor availability but also from lower demand due to the unseasonably warm weather. Something doesn’t quite add up there. Wrong stock, wrong place, wrong time?
“Marks and Spencer has secured its own share of the seismic shift to online retail this Christmas, but it is off a lower base than Next or John Lewis, and is still trying to make up ground lost from its faltering website relaunch.
“As extremely slick as the Marks and Spencer fashion website appears on the surface, when it is dunked by the customer, it comes up as a plain old custard cream.”
McGregor said the trial announced to shift the mix of space in Marks & Spencer stores from fashion to food reflects the change in sales and should improve fashion sales density assuming that the ranges are rationalised effectively.
For Danielle Pinnington, managing director at shopper research agency Shoppercentric, the contrasting positive results from the retailer’s food business meant that more than ever M&S is looking like two completely different companies.
“General merchandising, for so long the heart of the business, has struggled to compete effectively with the changing competitive landscape. Despite gaining plaudits for some of the ranges this year, the weather has also played a part – today’s shoppers won’t part with money that they don’t need to spend,” she said.
“On the other side food has a clear role as a premium destination, and its more focused approach targeting particular meal occasions fits well with today’s shoppers who are happy to shop around to get the right value/quality balance.”
McGregor said there was no taking away from Marc Bolland the remarkable Christmas delivered by the food category.
“Marks & Spencer food delivering + 5% like for like, is testimony to its quality and in store excellence,” he said. “Marc Bolland’s successor Steve Rowe must now do what has eluded Bolland for so long and translate that winning formula into general merchandise.”
Rogers agreed: “M&S is not a “fallen colossus”. It is wounded, but still moving forwards, putting its best foot forward (food). Now it needs some brave decisions about the reinvention of its GM offer.”