Marks & Spencer may have made a mistake when it sold its shops in France and Spain almost a decade ago, but buying them back sounds downright odd.
The retailer is considering doing just that, it has been reported, and has discussed the possibility with continental counterparts El Corte Inglés and Galeries Lafayette, which now own the shops.
There were sit-ins and expat hand-wringing when M&S quit its continental business in 2001, but shoppers have done without the stores for the best part of 10 years.
Were M&S to reopen, it would be landing in a changed market in transformed trading conditions. At the turn of the millennium retailers such as Zara were not such a powerful force as they have become and few believed the forecasts about how exponentially online retail would grow.
In the light of such changes, why would M&S try and build a chain from scratch in mature markets? There is no doubting consumer appetite for M&S goods in countries such as France and Spain.
But surely it would make more sense to cater for them online, perhaps supported by a handful of flagships in appropriate locations and franchised Simply Food stores. That seemed to be the model hinted at by departing M&S chairman Sir Stuart Rose at last week’s World Retail Congress.
It makes sense for M&S to target overseas growth but today shouldn’t the priority be to target rapidly growing emerging markets such as India and China, rather than the saturated high streets and malls of Western Europe? M&S has made slow progress in China to date and a continental push could be diversionary when international rivals are expanding apace in new markets.
When M&S updates next week Marc Bolland will certainly highlight international growth as part of M&S’s central strategy. It’s the right direction of travel, but what’s the destination?
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