Former Vogue editor reveals she’d save ailing Marks & Spencer stores

Former Vogue editor ALEXANDRA SHULMAN reveals she’d save ailing Marks & Spencer stores by ditching in-house brands and rolling out sexy lingerie

  • Former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman gives her take on how to save M&S 
  • She says M&S should ditch the brands, don’t ignore old people & keep it simple
  • She also adds there should be more mirrors in store and give us sexy lingerie 

Once again, Marks & Spencer is the bearer of bad news: 100 stores are closing and profits are down. Ask anyone and they will have an opinion on the subject.

My own comment last week — that the stores were a sea of dullness — certainly seemed to strike a chord.

Britain, it seems, cares. And while we all care, there’s hope. It’s once we stop caring that the last rites will be administered.

M&S is not just a store. It’s a whole value system — high quality, good prices, trustworthiness. We treasure it as a safe place which is central to so many of our lives. Mine especially.

Advice: Former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman says what she would do to help save M&S

My aunt used to work there as a buyer in the Sixties and I was indoctrinated in the attention to quality that was central to the store’s philosophy then.

I remember dinner parties in the late Seventies, when the glamorous Sabrina Guinness (now Lady Stoppard, wife of playwright Sir Tom) enthusiastically introduced us to M&S fishcakes, presenting them as the epitome of modern entertaining.

As editor of Vogue, in 1994 I featured supermodel Amber Valetta in an M&S pale turquoise silk shirt copied from the popular Gucci catwalk of the time, which readers all rushed off to buy.

Nostalgia, though, will get us nowhere. There’s nothing worse than something you love letting you down, and that’s what M&S feels like.

When I met current CEO Steve Rowe soon after his appointment in 2016, he told me he and his team were listening to research from customers telling them what they wanted.M&S had, he acknowledged, been getting some things wrong.

Two years later, it doesn’t look as though the listening has translated into action. Now, time is running out.

So, here, after a quarter of a century in fashion and a lifetime as an M&S customer, are my thoughts on how they can get it right . . .

FLAUNT YOUR BEST ASSETS

I’ve lost count of how many women in their 50s and upwards have asked me where to find fashionable clothes for their budget. And I have almost always answered M&S. But they could lose the will to live in the process, the way the stores are laid out.


Currently on offer there’s a terrific burgundy, navy and white colour-block dress (left) that is a more user-friendly version of those by designer Roksanda Ilincic (and a twentieth of the price, at £45)

Currently on offer there’s a terrific burgundy, navy and white colour-block dress that is a more user-friendly version of those by designer Roksanda Ilincic (and a twentieth of the price, at £45). There’s also a short-sleeved, dark floral midi that will tick every summer party box (right, £69). But oh, the ocean of creased linen shift dresses you have to wander through before you stumble upon them! There’s way too much of everything in way too many colours.

How many varieties of loose, viscose drawstring palazzos need to be displayed on the walls like Greek statuary? And everything is too spread out. We’re going shopping, not trying to ramp up the steps on our Fitbits.

Mirrors to give us a true reflection 

What is it with M&S and mirrors? There’s a baffling lack of them in stores, and those that do exist appear to be specifically positioned so you have to stumble into a clothing rail to get a reasonable view.

A key reason for going into the store rather than buying online is to try on clothes, or at least feel the fabric and judge the quality.

The company’s returns policy has always been first rate, but most people prefer to get it right first time. Many people don’t have time to go into the changing rooms and prefer to shrug on a parka or sweater on the main floor in front of a full-length mirror.

Stiletto weave courts, £39.50

Why not designate some specific areas where this is possible — even adding hooks on the wall so you can look at several pieces at the same time?

And while I’m on the subject of mirrors — the ones in the shoe department only show from the knee down. Even if you manage to find a right and a left in the messy jumble that is the shoe display, you need to trek to a different area of the store to see how you look from head to toe.

 

REVAMP THE CHANGING ROOMS

The ones I visited in London this week were only slightly better than a toilet stall in a sports stadium. They were grubby, with bare electrical fittings and locks that didn’t work.

Despite the fact they were almost empty, there didn’t seem to be an assistant available to help with finding different sizes. Good lighting is essential, too, as is a simple, pleasant space.

Why not offer people a glass of water? A water cooler will do. Or provide a space where shopping companions can sit?

And why not place some great accessories just outside that we might be tempted to snap up? This would be far better than placing a row of umbrellas and ankle socks at the till.

OFFER US SOME STYLE ADVICE

M&S shop assistants are almost all polite and friendly, but it’s a challenge to find anyone on the shop floor who can help in any way. They are all too busy trying to work out where some rail or other has been moved to.

And it’s not enough to point us in the general direction. Older customers want to look terrific but they often want proper help in finding what suits them, so why not put some staff on the clothing floors who can advise and steer?

Maybe shout louder about your online personal shopping service trytuesday.com, where stylists will revamp your wardrobe with no obligation to buy. This really is one of your best-kept secrets.

Keep it oh-so simple 

Shoppers are returning to the old-fashioned habit of buying little and often. So how about investigating smaller stores that are tailored to a specific product?

Simply Food works, so why not Simply Basics, selling tights, socks, men’s business shirts and those plain, pure linen shirts that are one of M&S’s great summer buys?

They could also sell plain white T-shirts across a range of prices, covering the cheapest already on offer up to a more aspirational level, such as those from designer brand James Perse. They could all be presented in a more minimal, Uniqlo-like style.

How about creating Simply Stylish for occasion-wear and present it to customers in a luxurious-looking environment, using some star pieces of M&S furniture?


Simply Food works, so why not Simply Basics, selling tights, socks, men’s business shirts and those plain, pure linen shirts (above, £27.50)

 

DRESS UP THOSE DULL WINDOWS

Marks & Spencer has some of the best frontage on High Streets across Britain. Surely the windows could be put to more exciting use? Take a leaf out of Selfridges’, Liberty’s or Fortnum and Mason’s book and use the windows as the incredible marketing tool that they are.

No one is wildly interested in the current display of cropped trousers on some skinny manneqins. Who is likely to be lured into the store by that?

GIVE US SOME SEXY LINGERIE

This is personal. I have relied on M&S for bras and knickers for many years, but something’s gone badly wrong.

My recent trip to the underwear department was like recceing a retirement home with a feeling of dread one might end up there.

I used to be able to find a pretty rose-print balconette bra or a delicate lace number, even though I come into the larger cup range. But now the arsenal of hefty over-the-shoulder boulder-holders would daunt even Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple.

And where, oh where, is a minimal but sexy range of soft, plain, white cotton briefs?

Simple and pretty one-colour hipster briefs have been replaced by multi-coloured, patterned five packs. It’s almost impossible to buy a single item of underwear. I’d rather pay a couple of pounds more to get the right item than get two-for-one of the wrong.

M&S Collection 2-pack bras, £18

SEND CHICKEN KIEV TO OUR DOOR

M&S food is first class, but we just want to be able to get hold of it in decent time.

The limited ‘Food to Order’ range, which offers tasty options for entertaining, has lead times of five days. This just isn’t an option — even if the canapés are delicious. Who wants to wait five days to get their hands on an array of Indian bhaji or crudités and dip? M&S are under the cosh from price cutting in the supermarket food arena, but a start would be speedy deliveries across a whole range of everyday foods.

Why can’t we get the chicken kievs or mashed potatoes, lemon tarts and vanilla custards on home delivery, too?

Don’t ignore oldies 

M&S tries to achieve the impossible; to be all things to all people. This is never going to happen!

The majority of customers are north of 40, so focus on them. Embrace this age group and stop worrying that they will all die off.

As an older generation, we have never been so healthy, wealthy and fashion-focused (men and women). M&S is in pole position to benefit from our spending power.

Chiffon playsuits and ripped jeans can be left to Topshop or H&M.

If they aren’t yet as delighted as I am by a fantastic M&S brass-buttoned black blazer (above, £59) that could be worn by any French Vogue fashion editor, they soon will be

Give us instead the best high-waisted, wide-legged denim of this summer. Take inspiration from Me+Em, an up-and-coming British label that sticks to the chic end of denim.

Good style is ageless — and, anyway, the 20-year-olds of today will be the 30-year-olds of tomorrow. If they aren’t yet as delighted as I am by a fantastic M&S brass-buttoned black blazer (above, £59) that could be worn by any French Vogue fashion editor, they soon will be.

 

DON’T BE A SLAVE TO M&S ONLINE 

The danger for M&S, as for so many businesses today, is that in focusing on the technological changes needed to manage the future, it kills off its core. E-commerce is growing year on year, but the majority of sales are still made instore — everywhere. So the quality of the stores and their products is paramount.

Investment no doubt needs to be made in the digital infrastructure, which currently doesn’t match that of newer, nimbler businesses, but the best retailers recognise that it is the on and off-line partnership which is key — so often shoppers find what they like in-store then go home to order online or vice versa: they find the product online, then check out how it actually looks and feels in the store.

Ditch the brands 

What is the point of all the in-house brands: Autograph, Per Una, Limited Edition, Classic, M&S Collection and Twiggy?

By far the best pieces I found were under the M&S Collection label. Ditch the rest, or if — for reasons incomprehensible to most of us, they must be kept, then they need a much clearer individual identity.

A couple of signs in a megastore isn’t enough. Give each brand a shop-within-a-shop set-up to tempt us in from across the store.

By far the best pieces I found were under the M&S Collection label. Ditch the rest

DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

There are many areas — women’s outerwear, men’s tailoring, children’s basics and food — where M&S is unbeatable. But in others, the baton has been snatched by rivals on the High Street who are competing well on price and beating on design.

Look closely at the opposition and take note! For example, M&S has a couple of nice, boxy, boucle jackets, but there’s a slightly leaner and more stylish one at Zara.

The silky print, pyjama-style trouser suits at Mango are the kind of thing that can be worn from ages 18 to 80 and are incredibly well-priced.

But in others, the baton has been snatched by rivals on the High Street who are competing well on price and beating on design

The display of holiday buys at H&M is immediately attractive, mixing straw hats, baskets, cover-ups and swimwear, as opposed to the unfocused clump of beach wear hiding in a corner at M&S.

The devil is lurking in the detail: tropical swimwear is great, but make sure colour combinations aren’t too crass; dial back on the easy-iron messaging that is displayed more prominently than the price. Ditch the Lurex thread that stalks Per Una.

And don’t feel that every piece of casual menswear needs a logo of some kind . . .

Get this right and the tendency to lower our voices and ‘confess’ that our party dress came from Marks & Spencer will change to a proud proclamation of our canny shopping. 

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