Marks & Spencer is piloting a new in-store look aimed at improving navigation and making its in-store brands more obvious. John Ryan reports

In the spring, retail watchers were taken aback when Marks & Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland told an invited audience that changes made in-store during his predecessor’s tenure had failed to inspire shoppers.  Some felt that before making a statement of this kind, it might have been polite to reveal something that would be better, but we were told that it would be the autumn before promised changes would be on show.

Now they are and the day before Westfield Stratford City opened, just over two weeks ago, Bolland and Nayna McIntosh, director of store marketing and design, led a tour of the High Street Kensington store. This branch had received a weekend-long makeover and is the first of a brace of pilot stores that will point the way for the group next year and into 2013.

And in essence, what has been done is to improve the look and feel of the food environment and to define more keenly the various brands that M&S operates across its clothing offer. Sounds simple really, but what is on view really does manage to tread that fine line between providing novelty without alienating the existing customer base.  

Food in High Street Kensington is sold from the basement and Bolland was keen to reiterate the point he had made previously that M&S had strayed too far in the direction of becoming like a high street supermarket.

The new look walks the walk. On view in this store is a complete reversal of the supermarket ambience, and for those who like their dried goods to be packaged as if they were in a small Italian deli or bread that feels like it should be in a boulangerie, this looked the part.

The thing about what is on show is that everything has been achieved at relatively low cost and most of this is cosmetic – a re-imagining and sharpening up of what is, for the most part, already there. In practice, this means taking a standard mid-shop display unit, for example, and trimming the shelf edges with dark wood. This immediately imparts the feel of a specialist food purveyor rather than a mass-market food provider.

The same could be said about the packaging of much of the product, which has been revised with the ambient offer looking as if it should have come from the pages of a Sunday magazine rather than any kind of supermarket. From M&S’s perspective, it also re-establishes it as a serious contender when set against what Waitrose has been doing of late – although the latter remains first and foremost a supermarket. Much emphasis is also placed on product provenance with graphics showing, among other things, a farmer among a field of large, mud-caked pigs – soon to be Serrano, one assumes. 

And before leaving this part of the shop, mention should also be made of the deli and the ‘food on the move’ area. Products such as burrata (a very expensive version of mozzarella) which are normally beyond reach, were on show and almost affordable. Given the cosmopolitan and affluent nature of the local demographic, this will do well, but there may be a question mark over some of the product beyond the M25 (although this will be closely scrutinised before 14 more pilot stores are unveiled in October).

Clothing is on the ground, first and second floor, and if one thing was apparent it was that it was actually easier to find your way around and this store does not look like a commodity-based warehouse. 

This has been achieved by tweaking many of the sub-brand logos – Blue Harbour, Collezione and Limited all having had makeovers, adding displays at the entrance to the various branded departments and providing mid-shop totems to help shoppers find their way around. Each area’s perimeter has also been afforded close attention with mannequins and larger mood graphics helping to identify the various areas.

Some of the influences are more obvious than others, so the old rugby boots, battered wooden oars and vintage leather suitcases all shout Polo Ralph Lauren or possibly Gant, but it’s hard to deny that this is a step forward for the Blue Harbour brand. Equally, there may be something rather obvious about putting a cream-coloured Vespa as the introduction to the Collezione area, but there is no doubting that Italian clothing is what will follow.

M&S at Stratford opened the following day, but as Bolland and McIntosh pointed out, what was on show in that store certainly contained elements of the High Street Kensington blueprint, but there was also a large quantity of showpony about what shoppers encountered. During the next four weeks, the remaining pilot stores will open and, perhaps minus the burrata and a few other upscale goodies, will bear a strong resemblance to what’s been done in Kensington.

A review of the performance of the project is due to follow immediately after Christmas and if the runes are positive, a phased roll-out will follow across the whole estate, scheduled for completion by early 2013. The speed of the roll-out should not surprise. Much of the High Street Kensington makeover involves graphics, equipment cladding and new packaging. Yet the effect appears more than the sum of the parts might imply. And as £600m has been earmarked to make good on the pilot store’s implicit promise, there may even be the odd million or two to spare when the wraps are off. This is evolution rather than revolution, but it is rapid for all that. 

Marks & Spencer

High Street Kensington      

Revamp completed September 10 2011

Number of floors four

Key elements in-store navigation and department segmentation

Chances of future roll-out high

Reason for change the previous store refurbishment programme failed to excite shoppers… according to chief executive Marc Bolland