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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 12:59 GMT
Can M&S bring bling to its brand?
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

M&S cafe staff
We're so hip it's not true

Call it the "dancing dad" phenomenon.

Some things - one's father boogying on down, Tory leaders wearing baseball caps, broadsheet newspaper columnists using words like "bling" - can only be observed through a red mist of embarrassment.

It is with a twinge of the same disquiet that we see Marks & Spencer, respectable purveyor of grey Y-fronts and shrink-wrapped beetroot, rolling out a range of self-consciously funky furniture stores.

M&S's new Lifestores, the first of which launches this week in Gateshead, are an unashamed attempt to inject a dose of bling into one of the High Street's most tired brands.

But forget the embarrassment: will it work?

Gossiping, grazing...

Certainly, Lifestore delivers a pretty good impression of high-concept modern retailing.

If you keep just tinkering, consumers will become more and more confused.
John Williamson, Wolff Olins
Designed by hip architect John Pawson, whose client list runs from Calvin Klein to Martha Stewart, the Gateshead store is a dream of cool white walls and refracting glass panels.

Gone is all that stuffy old nonsense about "departments"; instead, Lifestore has - wouldn't you know - "zones".

In the Relax Zone (sofas and the like), "striking statement pieces" (otherwise known as furniture) help "set the scene for your most indulgent down time ever".

The Cook Zone, meanwhile, urges you to "turn eating into entertaining and the kitchen into a social hub for gossiping, grazing and growing your repertoire of delicious dishes."

And so on.

A question of taste

So far so good. But taking an established brand upmarket is notoriously tricky to judge.

Lifestore Rest Zone
A Lifestore "sleeping space", formerly known as bedroom
You might alienate your conservative core customers, and M&S's core, we are supposed to believe, are more conservative than most.

You might fail to hit the spot: judging trendiness is particularly hard, and a near-miss can end up looking far more embarrassing than sticking to tradition.

And even if you get the tone right, you could blow it by raising expectations that can't be met, or by losing your nerve.

M&S has been guilty of this in the past: its notionally smarter female clothing range, Per Una, has won over fashion critics, but failed to boost overall fortunes after a patchy roll-out and hiccups in distribution.

Choose life

Lifestore, though, could be a smarter move entirely, some feel.

It's only a sub-brand, so has a greater freedom to experiment, says David Gilbert of brand consultants Nucleus.

Nor should M&S's core clientele, so often dismissed as narrowly provincial, be sneered at.

"People are far more design-conscious these days," Mr Gilbert says.

"They don't want the same old thing every time they go down the High Street. This means that retailers are obliged to keep reinventing themselves."

As long as M&S's key brand values - which Mr Gilbert identifies as value, choice and quality - are not compromised, this sort of development can only add lustre to the company name.

No place like home

More tangibly, a shift towards selling more furniture and furnishings, which M&S has sold for years, but in a half-hearted sort of way, could be smart.

M&S model
M&S woman is open to new ideas
Homewares are a booming business: overall UK household goods sales are growing at almost 10% year on year, five times as fast as clothing, M&S's main focus so far.

The 10bn furniture market is highly fragmented: multiples such as Ikea and MFI have a combined market share of about 50%, compared with about 95% for multiples in the food business.

And there are shifts under way. Ikea, generally seen as the savviest retailer in the market, is preparing a chain of smaller stores in or near the city centre.

What's the big idea?

Not everyone is convinced that M&S has what it takes to compete, however.

"This redesign looks like a copy," says John Williamson of branding firm Wolff Olins.

"And just copying is not a valuable position to be in."

The trouble, Mr Williamson thinks, is that by avoiding any sort of radical rethink, M&S no longer has a strong and unique idea of what it stands for.

"What M&S had before was a monopoly of the middle classes," he says.

"That's gone, and since then all they've done is refit their stores. And if you keep just tinkering, consumers will become more and more confused."

The dancing dad, it seems, needs some even fancier footwork.

New generation M&S store opens
25 Feb 04  |  Tyne/Wear
M&S considers new fashion stores
30 Jan 04  |  Business
M&S director quits as sales dip
14 Jan 04  |  Business
M&S 'hit by weak Christmas sales'
21 Dec 03  |  Business
Selfridges boss heads to M&S
09 Dec 02  |  Business

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