Another day, another set of Marks & Spencer results that have more than a whiff of déjà vu.

What is different this time around is that we now have a management team that has identified some relevant nettles and is now grasping them, taking a fairly stern line on areas such as supply chain, store numbers, bureaucracy, costs, systems, supply chain, buying, pricing and ranging.

Or, to summarise, running a major retailer.

“Normally, M&S would be ahead of the curve, blazing a trail into new, high-growth cuisines or categories”

As we know, the familiar narrative of food propping up fashion is well and truly in the past, and M&S is taking some (perhaps overdue) steps to better face into a more competitive future.

Some of the issues around the food offering are self-inflicted, such as unacceptable waste and availability metrics, a bloated range of tertiary international items, pricing that has fallen out of line with the market and a reliance on overcomplicated and unwelcome multibuy promotions.

It would not be overly harsh to posit that M&S has lost a little of its pioneering valour too.

Normally, the retailer would be ahead of the curve, blazing a trail into new, high-growth cuisines or categories.

But this year it has been grocers such as Tesco and Waitrose that have grabbed the meat-free/vegan opportunity and run with it, leaving M&S looking unusually flatfooted.

Realistic attitude

A buyer from another supermarket told me its usual modus operandi was to monitor new product development at M&S and then ask suppliers to essentially copy most of it. Occasionally they would wait for the ultimate mass-market validation of an ingredient, recipe or meal – when it appeared on the JD Wetherspoon menu.

These days, most of M&S’ competitors have raised their games in terms of innovation, particularly in premium lines and meal solutions.

It was interesting that the discounters were specifically mentioned by M&S today. M&S used to win a variety of seasonal cup finals (BBQ, Christmas, etc) year in, year out. But now the likes of Aldi, Lidl and Iceland are providing a more serious threat in these key trading battlegrounds.

“If the festive offering is half as good as its Best Ever burger was this summer, then M&S might just do fine”

About three years ago, I sensed that M&S, Waitrose and perhaps Sainsbury’s thought that they were at least partially bulletproof against the Aldi and Lidl incursion, but there is a much more realistic attitude heading into 2019.

The fixes outlined by M&S today are a reassuring indicator that some fundamental internal issues are being addressed, notably on pricing and range, and chair Archie Norman’s reference to “everyday great value” creates some optimism that shopper perceptions might be improved if this repositioning of sorts is well communicated.

There is much to love about the M&S grocery proposition and it will be interesting to see how Christmas 2018 pans out.

If the festive offering is half as good as its Best Ever burger was this summer, then it might just do fine.

M&S profits rise but sales continue to fall