Can M&S get its fashion mojo back?

M&S pushes "quality and style" with new autumn/winter collection
M&S pushes "quality and style" with new autumn/winter collection

With all eyes on Marks & Spencer's Autumn/Winter collection, unveiled last night, will the focus on quality and the new "Best of British" range be enough to transform its fortunes? We asked retail specialist Nick Gray, managing director at Live & Breathe, and former Ben Sherman head of marketing, whether the collection and the retailer's strategy will live up to expectations.

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Every British person has a soft spot in their heart for Marks & Spencer and we all want the brand to do well, so it's natural that we scrutinise intently everything it does. While no brand can be judged on just one season, the Autumn/Winter collection from M&S is obviously a hugely important one for the company.

You need to make sure a culture of fashion permeates through the whole business, from investor relations down to the youngest member of the shop floor team

It may seem like nit-picking, but I felt the announcement was a bit flat. Even though it was primarily aimed at the City and investors, the press release and presentation was too much like the old, stale M&S. I couldn’t imagine Zara or any other big clothing organisation publishing documents this lacking in flair. Other brands would have managed to make it feel more "fashion".

And that's the thing about fashion retailing; if you're going to do it right you need to make sure a culture of fashion permeates through the whole business, from investor relations right down to the youngest member of the shop floor team.

Thankfully the range does look very good, though. It wasn't quite what I was expecting and that's very important. It means M&S has taken on board the results of its customer research, but not just held up a mirror to its customers.

Great expectations

In fashion it's very difficult to get a measure of style, because usually if you can quantify it then it's just not stylish. So the fact that it's not quite what I expected is good news, because it means the team has listened to its customers, but also stayed one step ahead of them. That's imperative if M&S is to secure shopper interest and regain some of its style and fashion credentials over the longer term.

In fashion it's very difficult to get a measure of style, because usually if you can quantify it then it's just not stylish

Because the new range is impressive, expectations will be very high. However, M&S is a big tanker – in terms of the business, the product and shopper perception – and it can’t and shouldn't be expected to just completely change course overnight. I really think M&S has the right team, with John Dixon and Belinda Earl, to pull off a few surprises, buck trends and create new ones. However, I hope the business, the City and shoppers give it a little bit of time to build on this great collection.

It's a good sign that the team is focusing on sub-branding, including Limited Collection, Indigo, Per Una and Autograph among others. However, it's going to need to be truer to these brands than it has perhaps been in the past.

Sub-brands are not just about products. These brands also have to receive strong marketing support to help differentiate them in the minds of shoppers, and it's also hugely important that the in-store retail environment replicates this differentiation. If that doesn't happen they'll just end up being a mêlée of M&S labels on the shop floor.

Efforts to improve quality in the new lines are commendable too, but I don’t think it's something that's going to get shoppers flooding back to the stores. Quality is just something that you expect from M&S. In fact, some of its competitors are known for lower quality clothes, but the shopper doesn’t seem to mind that much. So while it's good that they're maintaining quality, it's just something they need to do to stand still, rather than something that's going to give them a jump on competitors.

A focus on quality is just something they need to do to stand still, rather than give them a jump on competitors

The "Best of British" idea is very clever, though. The new range is made in a selection of premium fabrics from luxury Scottish cashmere through to fine Yorkshire cloths – all manufactured in Britain.

It taps into the British fashion zeitgeist at the moment and could also provide a boost for the economy. I think it's going to strongly resonate with a huge percentage of shoppers, too. That's important because it could be key in helping M&S transition from a fashion to a style brand. And there's a huge difference between the two, because style lasts forever, but fashion is short term. The only disappointment is that it's only going to be rolled out to five stores.

Overall, though, I've no doubt that the team has done a very good job on the product as a whole. However, its success will be dependent on how well the changes are communicated to existing and new shoppers and how well the sub-brands are differentiated in-store. It's only if the company can do this effectively and carry it out over a reasonable period of time that M&S Clothing will become a destination fashion and style retailer.

 

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