Marks & Spencer’s latest results could show that Bolland’s strategy has begun to bear fruit, but continued improvement is still needed.
Did the stars align briefly for Marks & Spencer in its latest quarter, or was a return to growth in general merchandise a genuine step forward in a return to form?
Quite rightly, the retailer’s boss Marc Bolland refused to overplay the significance of an increase in general merchandise sales last week after 14 consecutive quarters of decline, as M&S’s womenswear range – which has dragged the business backwards time and again – finally gained traction.
Throughout the past few turbulent years, the Dutchman has doggedly stuck to his script that the British high street giant is on a journey, carefully reinventing itself for a new world.
One quarter of growth, against weak comparisons, was certainly not enough to proclaim that journey complete and there remains scepticism from many observers that M&S will reach its destination any time soon.
Certainly, progress since Bolland took over has at times seemed painfully slow, with several apparent steps forward reversed by failures in product, the supply chain and technology.
Given that track record it is easy to continue to be cynical about the future prospects of M&S and write off this latest period as a fluke.
But that would be to ignore a number of signals over the past 12 months that the right action has been taken in key areas for the business.
Most importantly, the influence of style guru Belinda Earl on its clothing, which has garnered positive reviews for over a year now, is finally translating into top-line results as well as allowing the brand to hold its margins.
Encouragingly the media buzz around a soon to launch suede skirt suggests the M&S brand still has the ability to excite when it gets its product offer spot on. And how it deals with peak demand around the key items of this summer’s ranges will test whether it has learnt the lessons of recent failures in its supply chain.
In ecommerce too, Bolland has put doubters on the back foot, with online back in strong growth after the retailer experienced a sharp drop in sales following the relaunch of its website last year. Search, navigability and speed are all reported to have improved, and although its content-led strategy still attracts its deriders, 2.5 million people have visited its Style & Living editorial pages online.
In-store, however, there remains work to do. Despite plenty of noise about investments in technology and store fit to improve the experience, it is feeding into the wider estate too slowly and one wonders whether more drastic action around the scale of the store portfolio is needed.
Indeed, even if M&S has finally turned the corner, it is the question of pace that Bolland has still failed to answer. These results may have done enough to justify his “step by step” approach thus far, but everyone will hope this quarter can be a springboard to faster gains.
- Chris Brook-Carter, Editor-in-chief