As with many retailers in the UK fashion market, Marks & Spencer’s latest transformation plan looks to revamp the business into a digital-first operation, aiming to generate a third of clothing sales through its online channel in the medium term.
While M&S reports its online sales “were better than expected” as it starts to experience the transfer of sales to its online channel from its recent space reduction in stores, online growth remains low at just 5.7% during the first half of 2017/18.
However, slow growth is partly owed to a lower level of promotional offers during the period.
Online sales growth still falls behind the market, with the likes of Debenhams and John Lewis both driving double-figure growth in 2016/17.
Despite this, M&S has decided to accelerate its UK store rationalisation programme, with the belief that the reduction in its womenswear offer on the high street will drive shoppers to visit and purchase from its website instead.
However, there’s one factor M&S seems to be forgetting in its transformation plan.
While improved delivery capabilities and enhanced in-store ordering facilities will have an impact, the question still stands as to how M&S will drive additional sales in clothing if its products still struggle to drive sales.
According to Retail Week Prospect’s forecasts, M&S’ clothing and home sales through the online channel aren’t likely to account for more than 27% of its total sales for the division in the medium term if it fails to curate a compelling collection for its customers.
Its latest ambition is to become the “UK’s essential clothing retailer”; a job that I expect M&S’ new managing director of clothing, Jill McDonald, will have her work cut-out implementing considering how broad the concept is.
While M&S has clearly made headway in narrowing its product lines and lowering prices, making its products more realisable and driving full-price sales, the retailer still has a way to go.
There are key learnings that McDonald can take from the current industry winners if M&S is wanting to reach its goal of generating a third of its clothing sales online.
“While McDonald may lack previous expertise in the fashion market, what she does hold is a strong understanding of the customer and how to curate a successful strategy for them”
What the likes of Asos and Boohoo have in common, which M&S is still struggling to achieve, is the coherent understanding of who its customer is – the most important factor required for any retailer to understand what product, price and experience is required to drive brand engagement and sales.
M&S will continue leaving its customer confused until it recognises who its true target market is, losing brand loyalty as a result. One season it’s designing for the younger 30s market with an Alexa Chung range, and the next it’s the over 50s market with the iconic Twiggy.
With this in mind, M&S’ recent recruitment of McDonald strikes a sign of hope for the struggling division.
While McDonald may lack previous expertise in the fashion market, what she does hold is a strong understanding of the customer and how to curate a successful strategy for them.
So whether M&S rationalises its clothing space in-store, or makes the business digital-ready, the retailer still needs to ensure it continues developing and tailoring its product offer to deliver a consistent performance across the division.