Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe has acted swiftly as he seeks to pivot the retailer to a digital-first business.
Over the last couple of months he has unveiled several initiatives that should not just address some the challenges that face a ‘traditional’ retailer as it readjusts to a rapidly changing world, but position M&S to take advantage of them.
At an overarching level, M&S has struck a partnership with Microsoft to explore how AI can be used to improve customer experience, stores and operations.
At a grassroots level, a deal with Founders Factory will enable M&S “to build a portfolio of investments in fast-growth start-ups, which it will seek to grow and scale”.
“Art as well as science plays its part in fashion retail – a category where M&S has struggled in recent years”
Third, in potentially the most transformative move so far, M&S has teamed up with tech education specialist Decoded to create “the world’s first retail data academy”.
Data is widely acknowledged to be one of the highest value currencies in retail today. Like conventional cash, if you don’t have it, you want it. Unlike cash, if you have a pile of it, the problem is often you don’t know what to do with it.
Some retailers may be deluged with data but cannot mine the value. M&S is one of them. At Retail Week Live in March, Rowe said: “One of the problems is that we’re drowning in data – we actually have too much that we can’t join together.”
M&S’ academy – which has the added virtue of putting the much-maligned apprenticeship levy to good use – should embed data, along with digital thinking and culture, throughout the organisation.
Altogether 1,000 M&S staffers from Rowe – who along with board colleagues had his first training session with Decoded founder Kathryn Parsons on Monday – to store managers and visual merchandisers will go through the academy with the ambition of bringing about “transformational change”.
Much of this is about the future, but the programme has the potential to address some of M&S’ longstanding problems.
It’s easy to imagine how good use of data could enhance product development, ranging and selling, though art as well as science plays its part in fashion retail – a category where M&S has struggled in recent years.
“Rowe has plenty on his plate to deal with today, but he needs to keep one eye on the future”
M&S’ future-proofing is accompanied by immediate action to confront the retailer’s problems and make traction with a turnaround.
Stores have been closed. Jobs, sadly, have been lost. Prices have been sharpened and variants of staple items such as Breton tops are now always stocked through the Foundation Edit.
There is a long way to go, a point always emphasised by Rowe and chairman Archie Norman with talk of “burning platforms” and the need to recognise the “unvarnished truth”.
In M&S’ annual report, published last month, Norman wrote: “Behind most underperforming businesses there sits organisational failure and culture that has proved resistant to change. Our case is no exception.”
That’s the context in which the data academy should be seen. Rowe has plenty on his plate to deal with today, but he needs to keep one eye on the future too.