Identifying what customers really want when it comes to their wardrobes is a conundrum that has been plaguing Marks & Spencer bosses for decades. While the chain has had its eureka moments (that pink coat, which felt like it was better known than the prime minister in 2013 and a suede skirt blessed by model and style plate Alexa Chung) it has been locked in a long-running identity crisis.
A couple of years ago, the high street retailer was struggling, with clothing sales plunging amid a reputation for “frumpiness” and buying errors that meant those lines that were popular sold out. But now M&S has announced an impressive turnaround in profits thanks to its booming online and food retail offerings, while the decline in sales at its clothing and homeware business has narrowed to 1%.
M&S has long faced the tricky dilemma – made extra complex by its broad customer group – of continuing to deliver to its longstanding customers who come for good tights and a pair of slacks with an elasticated waistband, while simultaneously enticing a new, fashion-inspired shopper into stores.
Its recent successes are a result of a decision to simplify that process. Certainly, a plan to offer a streamlined selection has had a positive impact on sales. Rather than attempting to be everything to everyone, M&S’s new tactic has been to cut back the noise. Today’s customer is offered less in the way of choice and more in the way of carefully thought through products.
The shift toward creating a core collection fits neatly into a post-pandemic world in which people want less trend-led fashion and endless variation in favour of versatile clothing that suits a flexible lifestyle.
The success of its activewear line – sales were up 50% on the same period last year and up 115% on 2019-20 – which spans everything from hooded sweats and working-from-home ready trackpants to workout gear – is also reflective of an M&S customer seeking a wardrobe to suit her new lifestyle. The success of the chain’s denim offering – more than 2m pairs of women’s jeans were sold in the first half of the year – is also evidence that a focus on casualwear is paying off.
Of course, if M&S is going to attract shoppers of all ages and demographics, it needs to keep its hat in the fashion game by appealing to those motivated by current trends. An increasing number of partnerships with other brands, including Hobbs, Jaeger, and emerging labels like British-based Albaray – available in many M&S stores – enables them to offer more scope while taking less financial risks.
Collections loaded with democratic fashion buys (see long sleeve dresses and suiting that can be worn to the office and beyond) suggests a design team that is taking fewer risks than in previous seasons. Its long-running partnership with Holly Willoughby, known for her “safe but stylish” wardrobe choices, encapsulates this sweet spot.
Earlier this week, the TV personality posted a picture of herself wearing a star print dress from the store’s newly launched Christmas collection triggering an increase in sales. A single-breasted teddy coat, which appears in the newly aired Christmas TV ad, is also a hit.