Marks & Spencer set out a new framework for apparel last year, built around a quality charter for customers, but has it worked?

It is now nearly a year since Marks & Spencer unveiled its new autumn/winter range for 2014.

Rather than just a product launch, Marks & Spencer set out a new framework for apparel built around a new quality charter for customers.

More than 50% of lines were to be updated and store merchandising was to be improved, removing clutter and duplicate options.

M&S Woman was rebranded as M&S Collection, with all sub-brands trying to create a stronger identity and design thread, backed up by a more consistent fit, better quality and improved product features and newness. And sleeves too.

Rather than a new product launch, this was an attempt by management to re-engage with its customer base.

How would customers realise the extent of changes? With the Leading Ladies marketing campaign and extensive column inches, how could they not?

So, having traded the first complete season under the new general merchandise team, with new product, new merchandising and a heavily marketed relaunch, has M&S been turned around?

We believe success has to be measured in like-for-like sales growth, or lack of it.

While M&S points to autumn/winter ‘13 as the first step in the journey of improving general merchandise sales the sheer scale of change, investment and marketing has to yield results.

It is telling that management speaks confidently about food performance, happily answering detailed questions on market share, pricing and strategy.

About clothing, there is less clarity; answers are deferred until Next time. Yes, womenswear sales have moved into growth, outperforming the 0.6% like-for-like gains delivered by total clothing sales in the fourth quarter.

There are pockets of outperformance -  we are told of cashmere sales up 30% and a positive response to spring/summer too. However, it looks as though the business is still losing market share to competitors.

The large, mature high street retailers rarely report significant movements in market share and sales performance - more typically it’s fractions of a percent.

In its last results presentation, however, Next essentially doubled its expectations for the rate of sales growth for the coming year, setting out a range of 4% to 8% growth in Brand sales (Directory and stores combined, including home ranges), when the business has typically delivered growth and guidance of between 0% to 4% in recent years.

No new product team, no new ranges, no new marketing relaunch, just best execution and a remarkably confident and aggressive assessment of sales potential for the year ahead relative to the market.   

In comparison, M&S can point to social media engagement for its new adverts and how this is the early stages of a journey.

Based on sales results, rather than Facebook likes and advert YouTube hits (both up strongly, by the way), there is scant evidence that M&S is re-engaging with existing customers or coming close to bringing in new ones.

The wider store base is still struggling to deliver a more compelling shopping environment and M&S has yet to prove it has the answer to a competitive and often discount-driven retail landscape.

After several years of like-for-like sales declines we look for growth this year, but there is little sign either in-store or from management that the general merchandise side of M&S can match the excellence of its food division or its competitor base. 

  • John Stevenson, retail analyst, Peel Hunt