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Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 07:32 GMT 08:32 UK
M&S: Can it ever recover?
Troubled British retailer Marks & Spencer is to abandon its European, American and Far East operations.
The retrenchment to the UK, which will affect thousands of jobs, is the latest plan in efforts to halt a relentless slide in sales and profits.
UK stores and product ranges will be revamped. M&S has already tried to spruce up its image by hiring a top clothes designer and launching ambitious advertising campaigns.
But the results are yet to be seen. New chairman Luc Vandevelde has given himself a year to turn the M&S ship around.
Can he do it? Will Marks & Spencer ever return to its glory days at the top of the retailing pecking order? Or has the shop simply lost the plot for good?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
R. Sinclair, Canada
Everything that I am wearing at the moment, bar my shoes, is M&S.
I have always bought underwear from them and they have traditionally been my automatic port of call for suits, ties, shirts etc for work. Until recently that is.
M&S nowadays appear to be under the mistaken impression that it is price that has driven people away and has reduced prices by reducing the quality. The shirt I have on now has washed poorly and is like a limp rag compared to some of my others. I shall be looking elsewhere for its replacement if M&S do not go back to their old UK suppliers and give value for money rather than simply low prices. If I want to wear cheap tat then I can get it for less at plenty of other places.
Strategically M&S have become stuck in the middle. Certainly their clothing market is neither appealing to the younger fashion market to whom the brand is synonymous with adult conservative clothing or the older market who will have noticed that the quality of garments has been compromised as M&S has tried to produce more 'stylish' clothing. They really need to decide which way to go, but to try and please to distinctly different markets simultaneously will be commercial suicide.
The negative vibes from your letter writers is sad to see. The British public has turned into a load of moaners. M&S has through the years offered real value for money. While you could say they are expensive the quality has always been good. I have bought numerous suits from them, they offer the best choice of mix and match sizes anywhere. The food halls always offer that special something you cannot find in other supermarkets. The staff are always courteous and helpful, and before you may think I work for them, I don't. I just wanted to send a positive message for a change.
Claire Powell, Belgium
I admire M&S as an institution and am sorry it has fallen on hard times. But as an American and long time Brooks Brothers shopper, I am delighted that M&S is selling off Brooks Brothers. Since buying this icon of traditional American dress, M&S has reinvented it as a fashion conscious clothier. But I don't want fashion. I want a place where I can buy the stodgy old 3 button sack suits that I have worn for years. I wish M&S well and hope that it will soon regain its reputation for quality that has served it so well.
M&S's problem is that they infuriate their customers by continually changing the store layout which results in people wandering around lost, confused and highly irritated, when all they wanted to do was find the yoghurt stand. Futhermore, they bring out a product (either clothes or food), wait for it to become extremely popular and then discontinue it with sadistic glee.
I am the nightmare of retailers. I am a floating buyer. I buy from a large variety of outlets, including the web, catalogues and high street stores. I have no prejudice about M&S and would have no hesitation buying from them if I like something, which DOES happen!
Ever since I left the UK, the one thing that I still get sent over is M & S underwear. M & S can be comforted that even as their UK customers abandon them in droves, they still have some loyal ones here in Canada who wear their merchandise close to their hearts!
If only it had been an April Fool's joke - but the only fools are the top managers. Gone are the times when management's only concern was for its shareholders - now we also have to think of customers and personnel, many of whom have been loyal to the brand for years. Marks and Spencer's still has many things going for it - mainly the excellent quality and design of its men's and children's clothes (though a little expensive) - and now even women's clothes are starting to move away from the "middle-class, middle-aged" look with the arrival of modern suits. The task ahead will be difficult. As a loyal customer of M&S, I hope that they will recover and eventually make it back to the continent. Once again it's the personnel that are paying the price for this mismanagement and it will be a sad day in France when the stores close.
M&S were used in an Open University course as a model for a forward looking organisation that set high standards, spread technology and achieved a level of quality envied in the clothing trade. Perhaps the superior attitude also made them lose sight of their objectives - to provide value for money product, thereby making a profit. Unfortunately the product is now dull and overpriced. The service is terrible and most staff seem to resent your presence. I now pass through M&S on the way to other shops. If I see "reduced" tags I may stop, but usually the style forces me to move on. It's a pity but all dinosaurs must eventually die or evolve. M&S RIP, you waited too long.
I love their wool cardigans in basic grey (like the ones we used to wear as school uniform). On the food side, if their chocolate fudge cake (the kind in the opaque ridged case) went out of production, I would shoot myself.
As an expat on a temporary posting to France I am obviously saddened by the news that M&S are closing their non-UK stores. I grew up with the M&S habit, and the quality underwear and food are (or rather were) one of life's certainties. All I can say is that we will learn to live without M&S - and that will apply when we return to the UK as well!
Rob Blaney, UK
As an ex-pat, when I do get to England one of the experiences I've always looked forward to is a visit to Marks and Spencer. The last couple of years have been a real disappointment. They seem to have lost their way in an effort to get more customers and, I think, have ended up sacrificing quality and style (however boring it was, it was always dependable). It's a shame because I used to put it on my "must visit" list for friends going to the UK but I now feel their time and money would be better spent elsewhere. I'll still stop by on my trips though - the deluxe bread and butter pudding is something I dream about!
As an ex UK manager, I am desperately sad to see the latest developments in the painful three year demise of M&S. Richard Greenbury (I can't bring myself to include the Sir) has a lot to answer for. His total mismanagement of the company, coupled with a weak Board of Directors caused irreparable damage. Exacerbating the situation was his arrogance with the British media, feeding the journalistic frenzy of negative articles. I sincerely hope that Chairman Vandevelde can overcome this shameful legacy, both for the customers and the thousands of dedicated, hardworking members of staff.
Sanjiv R, UK
M&S have really lost the plot and what was their strongest selling point. They've never been trendy or fashionable. They are too large to compete with the select brands and too expensive to compete in the mass market and yet try to do both. M&S used to be the place where you went for high-quality basic clothing items; the sort of thing you wore year after year. If you needed a basic black work suit, a smart polo neck or good underwear then M&S was the place to go. Now you can only buy things like that when they happen to be in fashion. In my opinion they should go back to their core strengths and return to high quality, well priced, well designed, stylish classic items.
As a Parisian I will miss M&S greatly. I shop in their rue de Rivoli food hall at least once a week to buy wonderful things like English 'bangers', smoked bacon, and oh, the bread. Their range of pre-packed meals has saved many a day. My baby son loves his visits where the staff always make him feel welcome. I would have bought a coat there this winter if I could have found one that did not look as though I was wearing a tent, and £200 at that. I hope they sort themselves out and come back soon. The cost of Eurostar will have be added to my food bill.
The problem with M&S is that they no longer do what they are good at - providing classic, high quality fashions at a reasonable price.
As long as M&S is committed to a policy of arrogance, people will not buy from M&S. In my opinion they are another RIP.
Two years ago the headlines were "M & S only make a billion pounds profit", or similar. Isn't the point that vast profit margins (that seem to be required by UK companies) on clothes are going down. The accountants persuaded the company to try and get the same profit margins out of clothes. Impossible nowadays, the margins on clothing are coming down everywhere and there are less and less developing countries keen to get in on this business.
The successes of M & S have been on food, and recently in home goods. Applying the same quality control procedures to other product areas is the strength of M & S. I shop there (or did) to get good quality everyday clothes that last a long time and were invariably always made in the UK. I would be happy to buy many other products on the same basis. The M & S brand is not slick but it was always reliable. If they sack anyone they should start with the accountants or marketing or management consultants that came up with such a strategy. M & S does not stand for anything now in the UK except the quest for high profit.
M & S is a multi-hundred million pound profit making business and is what might be called, if your feeling only slightly generous, a decent employer and a fair retailer, when you consider the proportion of people in this country on the payroll and the quality of goods found within. What is however more important given that the business makes money and employs a good deal of people who in turn pay good organised taxes is what the hell is going on?
The company are turning their backs on a Direct Catalogue market when competitors are throwing more money at it, why could this be? The cynics among us, of which I am one, would claim that with the incentive deals offered to the "new team" who incidentally aren't so new and have certainly been there long enough to shoulder some blame, are on dividend linked salaries and what better way to move the share price than to begin their cowardice dismantling of a great profit making business and a national institution than to make 5,000 people out of a job and ask us all to go back in time to the penny bazaars!
I know for a fact that that their new catalogue for Summer which is now going to be destroyed cost over £1 million pound to produce! Who is accountable for that then we should ask, while 700 - 1000 people join the unemployed in the UK and a further 4,000 in mainland Europe all go without work.
Something is clearly not right about this and it smacks of personal greed, doesn't anyone else care!
OK, you have got to turn the company around in a year - so let's take a sledgehammer to the areas that are really doing well. You are making your biggest mistake yet, M & S. Having lived in Paris for two years, I remember how, every time I visited Boulevard Haussman M & S, it was filled with customers throughout. And half of English speaking Switzerland travel to the Strasbourg M & S on a regular basis ! Drop the sledgehammer, analyse France and the rest carefully, and don't throw away the profit earning stores.
M&S are and always were middle of the road. A good place for underwear, a plain pullover: anonymous, unseen, functional, moderate quality. But evermore people can afford better and want to advertise it - that means less of a mass market in the middle ground.
As a member of staff at M&S, I have seen the changes that the company has made and the commitment to quality that every member of staff has. As a company we are all working hard to try and get back our unquestionable reputation for quality service value and innovation. Although we have problems and we accept that our clothes appeal isn't always good, we would have a task which is a lot easier if the media did not enjoy kicking a company when it is down, If you haven't been to M&S in a while, go back I am sure you will see a change.
Marks et Spencer: They failed to move with the times, and, just like the dinosaurs, though they were once the kings of retailing, they will die out. C'est la vie, c'est le mort!
Everyone I know who shops at M&S here in Brussels, goes there for the food. M&S should focus on that part of their business abroad and drop the clothing that has way too many competitors.
John Gant, UK
As a member of M&S staff for 12 years, I have seen the company on the way up, at the peak and then come crashing down. There certainly was an atmosphere of arrogance in management 5 years ago, and this coupled with the petty bickering at board level is in my opinion what led to our downfall. We lost focus and paid the price.
To those who would criticise M&S for sourcing more products from overseas: you have to realise this came as a direct response to customers saying that we were overpriced. The fact is that some of the British suppliers were simply not competitive enough. Nobody complains about other high street stores who don't buy British, probably because they never have. It was regrettable but I believe necessary to enable us to compete.
Large scale retailing has always been a very difficult industry to stay in because "the formula" eventually becomes self-destructing. The bigger you are, the more "quality" is offset with "price", and maintaining the balance is extremely challenging. Today's examples of success (Walmart, for instance), can just as easily become tomorrow's failures. M&S lasted as long as they did because they stuck with the "quality" side of the equation, as soon as they ventured into the "price" side, they were just another retailer.
Rahul S, France
Jon G, UK
It is a shame that M&S is closing their stores in continental Europe, I am one of the people who will lose their job, I have been working for M&S for nine years and I can not understand this decision.
I give M&S two years in the UK and then it also over and out for them because of the lack of thought by management. Thanks Mr Luc van der Velde!
Michael Bruce, UK
I wonder if you are going to send these comments to Marks and Spencer bosses? They should see what "their" public think of them - but, will they act on it or just continue in their complacency?
The most probable reason for the empty M&S stores in Singapore is high cost and uncaring staff. Enter any other clothes retailer of a similar category and you are welcomed by friendly assistants and the prices are reasonable. It is obvious that M&S in Singapore and elsewhere is out of touch and does not understand the market. Loyal customers have been betrayed by poor management and complacency.
John Stephenson, UK
Having lived in the UK for several years, it took me a while before I would shop at M&S because in the early 90's, the shop seemed to be filled with old fashioned clothing. A few years later, it made great strides at having more up to date styles. The food hall I thought was great but it was very expensive. Most everything in UK is so ridiculously overpriced and wages so low it really does surprise me how M & S could be in such trouble. I look back now and I wonder how I managed as well as many of my hard working friends and family.
M &S used to be where everyone shopped, and where one bought quality goods made by British manufactures like Daks or Coats Viyella. The fabrics were innovative, the quality excellent, the clothes were practical and catered for a variety of shapes, tastes and pockets. Those days are long past. The clothes are now tacky, cheap and shoddy (and that includes the Autograph designer ranges). I shop elsewhere and so does everyone else.
Simon Cameron, UK
The slow demise of M&S really doesn't surprise me. As a transplanted Brit, we were delighted when M&S came to Canada - except they stubbornly refused to adapt to a different market -talk about boring! We predicted their failure - and it happened!
Ann Thornton, New Zealand
I am desperate to see an M&S in Florida. The food section is unmatched in this country. I KNOW M&S would make big money here.
Oh please, the simple problem with Marks and Spencers is glaringly obvious. Walk into the shop and just look, do you see any colour. No its beige, grey and black.
Hear! Hear! M & S are entirely the authors of their own misfortune. They abandoned the quality products which their long-term LOYAL customers relied on. Ditched their UK manufacturing workers, and replaced everything with shoddy, tacky stuff instead. Over the past few years I have written to their buyers several times about this and basically got the brush off. They didn't want to listen to US - the customers and what WE wanted, so now their paying the price. It's just a pity that their hard-working loyal employees will have to pay the price for their management's MIS-management.
As a staff member, I would encourage everyone to leave their idea of "dull and boring" at home and shop with an unbiased attitude. With stock changing all the time, why not look at the new styles? They're not as bad as you seem to think! I think the media is too harsh on M&S - this is what makes our customers stay away, and it doesn't do much for UK staff morale. Would you like to be described as "failing" and having "lost your spark"?
In Hong Kong, M&S's clothing is too "traditional" for working ladies under 40. This group possesses strong buying power and considers M&S's clothing too classic in our society. So the lack of marketing sense is probably the cause of M&S failure in Hong Kong market.
I stopped buying M&S clothes once I saw most of my peers wearing M&S clothes. Who wants to wear the same suit and tie as your work mates ?
M & S was not challenged for over a decade and became complacent. It is now being challenged from all sides and doesn't have the ability to respond. After three years of constant restructuring it lacks focus and the customers have moved on. It will recover, but I doubt it will ever resurrect the glory days of old!
M&S needs a serious image overhaul. Flogging its shops is a good start - the layouts are awful and the staff miserable with rubbish service. Get its share price up in a falling market and the subsequent excitement may filter out into retail sales.
I'd grown up with Marks & Sparks so when I moved to Hong Kong for 9 years I was pleased to find them there. They were the only store in Hong Kong that stocked my size at affordable prices. The Hong Kong stores are doing tremendously well so it is surprising to hear that they are being franchised. They are certainly filling a niche in the HK market. Why can't management look to those stores to discover the reason for their success and adapt it to the UK or elsewhere?
Closing their European stores is a remarkably short-sighted move if the extremely busy trade in their Paris stores is anything to go by; and the stores are very popular with the locals - certainly not just ex-pats in search of the odd scone!
As an UK expatriate in Belgium, I have a different perspective on M&S - it provides a taste of home on the continent, and a welcome one at that. It can also be a lifesaver - I think it's the only store in the Netherlands that has soft loo roll!
Alison Darby, France
I think M&S is very good high quality shop. The food is really nice and the cloths are starting to get nicer. So I think in a few years M&S will be back on top.
At one time when you went to an M&S store you were met with well cut clothes of excellent quality. No longer I think quality is really where it has gone pear shaped, especially as their prices have gone up & up. At one time they were big fish in a small pond but longer - the pond is now huge.
It really is time that M & S went back
to their old ways and realise that their
customers are the ones that pay their
wages, we do now expect our
complaints to be listened to and
respected and a little of the now
old-fashioned good manners. Style and
quality would be much appreciated.
I think M&S lost the plot some time ago. I had 2 lovely M&S polo-neck pullovers, the kind of classic clothing which you can find in most wardrobes. I wore them out and went back for 2 more. Sorry, we don't make those any more.
When we boring men, who are not slaves to fashion find something we like, we want to replace it with something exactly the same.
Jamie Crampton, UK
If the UK media would just stop beating them while they are
down they might have a better chance!
High Street culture has changed and M&S just needs to get it's stores and lines up to date. However, quality should continue to be the first priority for all it's products - that's what made M&S in the first place, and it'll break them if they lose it.
M&S lost my family's support when it chose to turn its back on British suppliers for its clothing. The present lines look rather tacky, and pseudo-trendy. I also hear many people complaining that M&S garments no longer fit properly.
If M&S started asking what their customers really want, then they might see a turn-round in their fortunes. I've written to them on a number of occasions bewailing their purchasing decisions and absence of stock essential items, but any reply I've received has not given the impression that M&S management is prepared to respond to the views of its customers.
Gillian White, Scotland
I would like to suggest one easy fix solution to the M&S crisis but one that is a fundamental issue to many of its shoppers - PUT THE PRICE BACK ON THE CLOTHES TICKETS!!
Graham Southorn, UK
I think that M&S has improved greatly over the past few years - I would never have considered shopping for clothes there until recently, as they are certainly more stylish and up to date now. I shop in M&S more than ever now and my local store is never quiet. Perhaps it is a case of bad press causing some customers to stay away and not realising that the stores have made great improvements.
It will be interesting to see what changes will occur through the latest store refurbishment's. I can't see how retrenchment to concentrate on "classic styles" and the "core customer" will make the brand any less boring in the eyes of consumers than it has been in recent years.
Of course they can recover. All they have to do is offer what people want. I'm a boring middle-aged engineer who has always bought shirts and underwear from M&S and the only reason I haven't replaced anything recently is that the last stuff I bought was so good it hasn't worn out yet, but when it does, I'll be back (if they're still there). And as the age-ing section of the population gets larger there's no reason they can't continue to sell sensibly designed well made products to it.
M&S should concentrate on what they are good at. Their food halls are the finest. They should open smaller branches around the country.
Marks & Spencers were arrogant enough to believe that sensible pullovers and tweed would always be desired on the high street. However times change and consumers of today are much more sophisticated. We seek variety, convenience and of course, competitive pricing. M&S is none of these, refusing to revamp themselves along with other retailers in the early part of the 1990s by offering greater choice, payment via credit cards and affordable goods. This I feel, is too little too late, I for one, have no further need for argyle sweaters.
For what it's worth I still buy clothes from M&S. Although perhaps not the most "fashionable" outlet, the prices are reasonable and for the most part the products are well made. I'd rather pay less for fair quality than pay over the odds for an over-rated "designer" name, especially since everybody and their dog seems to be a "designer" these days.
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