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Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Q&A: Is Marks & Spencer back in fashion?
Marks & Spencer, one of the best known names on the British High Street, has a new chief executive and is celebrating a recovery from several years of miserable sales.

BBC News Online asks if M&S has really rediscovered its sparkle, and how.

So Marks & Sparks is out of the doldrums?

Marks & Spencer is so confident it's rediscovered the winning formula that its top boss Luc Vandevelde feels safe handing the job of chief executive to someone else.

Key to the recovery: UK shoppers are slipping into M&S clothes once again.

As a result the High Street retailer is celebrating six months of rising sales.

Profits for the past twelve months are up 30%, to 646.7m.

The sales growth for the whole of the past twelve months is a still somewhat disappointing 3.8%, but during April to June M&S sales surged 9.1%.

Yes, I've bought one of those cute tops in the "Per Una" range - but what went wrong?

Well, for years Marks & Spencer was a British institution, famous for affordable and stylish clothing.

This was the shop where most Britons bought their knickers including, famously, two UK prime ministers - Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

M&S was seen as a reliable, if unexciting, source of office and casual wear. Trips to M&S to buy school uniforms heralded the end of summer for many generations of children.

But then something went wrong.

The clothes sold under the St Michael brand failed to excite teenagers, the Club 18-30 crowd and thirtysomethings.

Wrong style didn't just cover what was hanging on the rails.

Retail analysts said M&S stores were too big, too brightly-lit and too bland - and could not compete with bolder, trendier formats like Next or Monsoon.

Marks and Spencer's profits collapsed, the share price plummeted, and the top management had to go.

Who's the man behind the turnaround?

It's Luc Vandevelde, an always-optimistic Belgian who had previously built Promode into Europe's biggest supermarket chain.

He was hired two-and-a-half years ago to turn the ailing retailer around.

He famously promised to quit if he failed to do the business.

But now he certainly isn't stepping down in disgrace, as many had once predicted.

Instead, he is seen as the firm's saviour and will stay on as part-time chairman.

How did Luc solve M&S's problems?

Marks & Spencer hired Luc Vandevelde in February 2000. He stuck his neck out, saying M&S would recover within two years.

The road back proved even rockier than he predicted, and involved a few stumbles.

An advertising campaign boasting that M&S sold clothes for "normal" woman was quickly scrapped.

Even if the average British woman is size 16, few wanted to be reminded of it - or publicise it by walking down the High Street clutching M&S bags.

But hiring fashion designer George Davies proved to be more successful.

Mr Davies had once launched Next - one of M&S's key rivals - and designed the highly successful budget clothing range 'George' for supermarket chain Asda.

His Per Una styles for M&S helped to restore sales.

Major cost cuts helped too. M&S had to ride a wave of protests when it closed down and sold off its European operations.

So is everything OK now?

Fashion is a notoriously fickle business. M&S may have got it right for six months, but its reputation with consumers has taken a battering and is not yet secure.

M&S hopes to cash in on the home improvement boom, and has also joined the trend towards smaller, local stores focused on selling food.

Like other British retailers, M&S is riding a consumer spending boom that shows signs of flagging.

Seeking the spark

See also:

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