M&S chief Marc Bolland has announced he’ll be stepping down in April, following a pretty disastrous Christmas trading period (down almost 6 per cent year on year). Bolland, who was tasked with reversing the high-street chain’s fortunes some seven years ago, says his retirement is entirely unrelated to the company’s performance, and was announced in-house over a year ago, but, inevitably, the City and the financial press are reading his decision as more business than personal.
I, for one, welcome the change of management. Admittedly, there have been some commendable decisions made on Bolland’s watch. Marks & Spencer's environmental initiatives around sustainability and waste have been trailblazing; the popular healthy-eating products are deliberately fad-free. The new branded beauty department selling niche, credible brands, instead of the old generic gift baskets, is a triumph. The intelligently conceived Leading Ladies ad campaign, featuring powerful women from several generations, was inspiring and important. All reminded us that M&S is a much more substantial proposition than mere disposable fashion.
But the huge problem with M&S begins when one walks through the door, and Bolland never addressed this in any meaningful way. Inside are tired shop fittings that create an environment much closer to a regional branch of Debenhams than a bright, modern John Lewis, the chain that has stolen M&S’s crown as national retailer of choice. Lower profits mean noticeably reduced staffing presence on the shop floor. Walking across an entire M&S floor to find an open till is now part and parcel of the customer experience. Changing rooms are often unstaffed and the computer system checking stock availability in other stores is woefully inept (several of my girlfriends have schlepped across town on a promise, only to be told that their item was out of stock after all). The once-unique returns policy has become standard across most of the high street, and quality has undoubtedly slipped as manufacturing has increasingly moved overseas.
They failed to recognise that most British women over 35 have a hole in their wardrobes that M&S is perfectly placed to fill. Truly, they could become heroes for an entire generation
But a far bigger problem than Marks & Spencer’s shelves and racks is their contents. From the launch of Per Una onwards, M&S seemed to entirely lose sight of who its clothing customer was, and of what she wanted. They failed to recognise that most British women over 35 have a hole in their wardrobes that M&S is perfectly placed to fill. Truly, they could become heroes for a entire generation.
I desperately hope that a change of management will ensure that I never see another beaded waterfall cardigan again, when all I want is a perfect navy V sweater that dares to go lower than my navel. I hope that, instead of nasty bias-cut skirts in lilac and turquoise, I’ll find a high-quality black pencil skirt that looks more Mad Men than minor royal. I long to see the back of nasty mix-and-match bikinis and sarongs, when most true M&S customers crave a nice stripy cossie that sucks in our belly. Give me a classic camel coat or a Paddington duffle, bras that fit and magic pants that don’t hurt, the perfect white knickers and black opaques, sleeved evening dresses that flatter new mums and old broads alike, and cotton T-shirts that skim the hip, not hit the Caesarean scar.
Like every woman I know, I desperately want M&S to be great again, and I’m baffled as to how they’ve so spectacularly failed to see where they’re so badly getting it wrong (one pink coat and some lovely Rosie loungewear aside). Quite simply, M&S needs to stop trying to be fashionable and start being stylish.
Give me a classic camel coat or a Paddington duffle, bras that fit and magic pants that don’t hurt, the perfect white knickers and black opaques, sleeved evening dresses that flatter new mums and old broads alike
But, like the rest of Britain, I believe in M&S. All is far from lost. Few British retailers could boast the kind of goodwill the public reserves for this national treasure, and there is hope. Bolland will be replaced by Steve Rowe, former head of M&S Food (the store’s saving grace, prosecco-flavoured crisps aside), who started at the company via the shop floor at just 15, and is widely felt to be a promising choice. I really do hope Rowe can reverse the fortunes of a chain so many of us hold dear, but which has seemingly turned its back on its core customer. But we are still here, willing and waiting to return for more than a cheese and onion sandwich on malted white. He just needs to see that the way to tempt us back is not via disposable fads most middle-aged women now buy in Topshop. The answer is in quality, women-friendly, body-flattering basics and classic British styling. Oh and Percy Pigs, of course. Credit where credit’s due.
The picture of Alexa Chung was added to this article on 19 February 2016