M&S’s first quarter general merchandise like-for-like sales slump of 6.8%, though not unexpected, has highlighted how much it has lost its way in fashion.
If we rewind just five years ago, the retailer was a high street staple for women of all age groups, with Per Una and Limited Collection appealing to shoppers across the board.
Now, M&S is seen as a place for the older generation and it is the clothing offer, particularly womenswear, that is dragging down the performance of the group.
Despite the array of youthful celebrities promoting M&S’s wares – including bona fide Hollywood superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley – the retailer is not attracting young shoppers, and a retailer with as many stores as M&S can’t rely on a niche, older audience.
According to Verdict practice leader Maureen Hinton, the average age of an M&S shopper is now 65. “It’s lost its hold on the younger audience. There are retailers which are cheaper, faster and more aspirational,” she says.
Put simply, it hasn’t kept up with its competitors, and is clearly losing market share at the hands of Next and John Lewis amongst others.
Its ranges lack inspiration and look unedited, and its lacklustre store environment serves only to exacerbate the problem.
The retailer also seems to be suffering from a lack of confidence, with its merchandising team reluctant to take risks. For the past two quarters it has under-stocked its bestselling lines.
Hinton points out that M&S customers are beginning to feel confused with the offer presented. The retailer has a vast portfolio of brands, but shoppers are perplexed as to what separates one from the other - and the celebrity faces of its brands are doing nothing to demystify the situation.
“You see Rosie Huntington-Whiteley modelling for Autograph and you think it’s aspirational, young fashion, then you go into store and see fairly basic linen items which are a bit safe,” says Hinton.
“It needs to ditch the Hollywood stars and focus on making its brands prominent and distinctive,” she adds.
Chief executive Marc Bolland clearly recognises this is an issue and has already made moves to consolidate the brands it sells.
Hopefully the fresh blood of Belinda Earl, following the departure of well respected fashion boss Kate Bostock, can help reverse the situation.
Earl is well regarded in the fashion world and helped make Designers at Debenhams the phenomenon it is today. The department store’s designer ranges are the cornerstone of its fashion offer and importantly all its brands have clear and distinct identities.
However, much work needs to be done, and with M&S shareholders breathing down Bolland’s neck, he may not have much time to action such changes.