How M&S regained its place as UK’s top womenswear retailer

Fours years after it fell out of the FTSE 100, M&S has turned around its fortunes to become the UK’s best retailer for women’s wear.

In May, strong sales figures were driven not only by bog-standard basics such as underwear and T-shirts, but by more fashion-forward categories, too. Now, sales of women’s party wear are up 49%, and knitwear up 23% in October compared with last year.

What is behind the turnaround? “This is going to sound really stupid, but the only way to do well in womenswear is to design and sell what women want to wear,” says Catherine Shuttleworth, a retail expert and the founder of Savvy Marketing. Where once M&S was seen as a purveyor of clothes that were at best inoffensive or else labelled – in a somewhat sexist manner – “frumpy”, now it is appealing to women who have one eye on Vogue and another on value.

She points anecdotally to “the number of people who have said to me ‘have you been to Marks? It’s absolutely brilliant’.” To admit your clothes were M&S might for a time have been uncool in certain circles, but now it is nothing to whisper about.

“People have been a really big part of it,” says Shuttleworth. Maddy Evans arrived from Topshop in 2019 and was promoted to director of womenswear last year. She has, Shuttleworth thinks, helped the brand to develop a better understanding of who their shoppers are.

Evans says “understanding who [the customer] is and what she wants” has been central to the turnaround. She describes that customer as “modern mainstream” – “it isn’t about age, it’s more attitudinal”.

M&S now fills a gap – by comparison, the likes of Arket and Cos are fashion-forward but pricey, and H&M and Zara are perhaps associated with clothing less likely to last. M&S, says Katharine Carter, research and analysis manager at Edited, blends “timeless wardrobe pieces that tap into the new era of minimalism and quiet luxury, while also offering statement hero pieces”.

Key also are the third-party brand partnerships, such as with Nobody’s Child. These help bring in “a wider demographic of shoppers”, says Graeme Moran, associate editor of retail industry magazine Drapers, “helping shift some perceptions of the business since it lost its shine”.

Improvements to an antiquated supply chain have been fundamental, says Shuttleworth. “Things used to take an age to appear in store,” but now, “newness is rotating much more frequently and of course what shoppers want is more new stuff”. Evans puts it simply: “We’ve got more of what our customer wants, when she wants it.”

As have changes to its stores. Shuttleworth takes the Liverpool one, which has been relocated and refurbished, as an example. It is, she says “fantastic” – they have cut the space given to fashion but the sales are up. “That’s because it’s laid out better, it’s easier to shop, it looks good and people want to go in.”

The online offering has also upped its ante, with more personalised content of the kind that millennials who grew up shopping on Asos expect. “Making its digital proposition slicker,” as well as smoothing “out its behind the scenes operations, like delivery and returns, will also all have helped bring back some sparkle too”, says Moran.

The elephant in the room is sustainability. There is a feeling of quality and trust about M&S that a lot of shoppers value – timeless pieces that will stay in wardrobes for years to come. But while that might feel sustainable in some customers’ eyes, according to Good on You, an app that rates the ethics of brands, M&S has a lot to improve on. It highlights the fact it has not published details around whether it pays the garment workers making its clothes a living wage.

While these promising sales relate to the six months to September, that same month Sienna Miller, 00s “it-girl”, was announced as face of the brand. It was a perfect choice – just aspirational enough. Continued good fortunes can be expected.

M&S recent greatest hits

Sequin midi dress

This sparkly frock is apparently so popular that one sells every minute – M&S says more than 5,000 have been sold. Expect to see it at more than one office Christmas party (but hopefully also for years to come, given its abundance of polyester sequins).

Recycled blend textured button front cardigan

Big on TikTok, this staple has caused a furore for its apparent similarities to a classic Chanel cardigan that would cost much, much more.

Recycled blend striped roll-neck jumper

This jumper is deceptively simple – classic but of-the-moment. Its oversized neck chimes with Phoebe Philo’s design language, and it also blends with the season’s desire to dress like a cappuccino. 17,000 of them have already been sold.

Faux leather cross body bag

It could almost be Celine – this accordion-style bag is a big hit for its high-fashion aesthetic, no doubt helped by its £35 price tag.

Cashmere crew neck jumper

Simple and available in everything from extremely classic navy to racier lime, this is a timeless layer that is likely already at home in wardrobes up and down the country.

Sienna straight-leg jeans

Contemporary in terms of cut but without pandering to trends and accessible to wear given their stretch, fit and price (£25).