Will Alexa’s lipstick sex up the M & S pig?

Marks and Spencer have recruited supermodel Alexa Chung to design a better looking balance sheet for their struggling womenswear section. Is this a case of ‘fingers crossed’ the miraculous brouhaha she created in their suede skirt could be duplicated for their trousers and ‘tops’ by some inexplicable stroke of luck? Are we hoping lipstick might sex up the pig? Or is there, in fact, a strategy?

Perhaps M & S’s miserable Christmas sales were down to the management zeitgeist that prompted last year’s CEO Marc Bolland to describe their womenswear as ‘fashionable’; ‘trendy’ and ‘stylish’.

Honestly? My cab sauv-swilling, still working, no mortgage, late babyboomer, prime M & S shopper friends stopped using the word ‘trendy’ around 1973 and ‘stylish’ was a whole generation earlier. We must be story-boarded as square in shape and outlook when M & S designers are commissioned. In my experience, although the grandchildren are starting to pop up, we can still turn on the charm over a glass and haven’t surrendered all hope of an indiscretion with an old flame – given some soft lighting and the right look.

M & S clothes appear to be targeting the over 80s. Its commendable but when I’m being wheeled from a bath hoist to the day room – how many people will I be impressing as brand ambassador for my M & S navy and white striped ‘top’. Far fewer that I could be nailing in a wicked one-piece at next weekend’s pre-theatre drinks – however that option no longer exists.

A few decades ago M & S stood for quality, well-made super smart clothes.  Even if they changed to cheaper suppliers to satisfy shareholders, how come other retailers still manage to be profitable with a much better offer?

It’s frustrating.  The Per Una range launched in 2001 was super  – why did it slip back into ‘shapeless’? Why were the appliqued cardigans allowed to prey so quickly on the well-cut bootleg pinstripes?

A walk through under M & S’s neon lighting favoured by East European supermarkets and Primark – the latter excusable for their hallmark pricing structure – you’ll find cardigans; then miscellaneous ‘tops’; coats; more cardigans, a few but not many coats (they’ll reappear later) and so it goes on, randomly stranded on metal racks separating baffle boarded sections branded – Indigo; Portfolio; Autograph or Classic. Anyone?

Fourteen of my cab sauv swilling coterie shared what they think is going on at M & S,  (their open-ended comments appear in the Appendix).  Here’s what they said:

  • None expected to find anything unique or fabulous;
  • Over half only go to M & S for bras and knickers;
  • Nearly 60% said they don’t know where to find what they are looking for, and more than a third leave wondering why they bothered;
  • Half said the impression of the stores was depressing;
  • Of a range of female personalities they felt most like in M & S clothes, Angela Merkel was the clear winner.

For clarity, to be the German Chancellor’s doppleganger is a fail not an aspiration for the flirting fifties. On the plus side nearly 60% said they usually get what they need, and in fact M & S will diversify into a bet-taking brothel before my generation fall out of love with it. Our opinion of its decency is in our DNA, fuelled by the calibre of its customer-facing staff and the fantastic accessibility of its stores.

So we’re pinning our hopes on new CEO Steve Rowe to bring back the quality and a whole new era of va-va-voom.  Mr Rowe was an in-house appointment – he was formerly head of merchandise – it’s a worry. Here’s the thing though. When my friends listed other shops they would go to in preference to M & S, top of the list was Next. It was Next’s founder George Davis who launched Per Una for M & S 15 years ago. So who’s head of womenswear for Next now? How can we contact them?

And so I conclude my love letter to M & S – you have a customer base longing to boost your profits – just give us the opportunity, we’ll take it and have fun with it.

If customer insights; market segmentation; focus groups; product development, marketing; customer experience evaluation processes etc etc just aren’t working at M & S, let’s get the person from Next and put them in charge. It’s not a wholly coherent strategy but it’s got to be more successful than re-positioning the same dreary old ethos around the Ms Chung’s ephemeral celeb status, hasn’t it? Am I wrong?

Note to Editors and Retailers: My cab sauv panel are available for further research in return for a day at Ascot and a jeraboam of Pol Roger.

Appendix 1

  • All clothing feels too ‘safe.’ They somehow have the ability to take a fashionable design and M&Sify it.
  • Food is excellent quality and home store is quite good but fashion/clothing is hideous
  • If you like camel coloured raincoats with a belt and wear sensible shoes, M and S is the shop for you! Not on your Nelly mate. I ain’t dead yet!! Get a grip and enter the 21st century with your fashions.
  • I like Per Una and the other younger casual section (don’t know the name-obviously had a huge impact!) but it’s all very expensive especially if you’re just looking for workwear. Sale items are non-returnable. I bought my in-laws jumpers here at Christmas and that about sums it up although I did get a nice top there last week and it was only £15 – bargain!
  • Love the food. The clothes are too “old ” for me, and I’m 56. Don’t know what market they are aiming at with the fashion, but it is not working people from 30 to 60 and they are the only ones who can afford to shop there. Great for tights and shoes. Terrible lingerie unless you like fleece pyjamas. Dull colours and not much tailored clothing, everything seems to be square shaped.
  • Only when I need new knickers!
  • Still dependable for homeware and Autograph is the area I go to.
  • If only their clothes could have the taste imagination and variety of their food hall.
  • Some is tat, colours > matt, feeling > flat!





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