Having trodden the time-honoured path from shopfloor to boardroom, M&S chief executive Steve Rowe won’t have taken the decision to close stores lightly.
However he’s pinning his hopes on the belief that shuttering 30 out of 304 full-line UK branches and, more importantly, a wider reconfiguration of space will result in an overall proposition that better caters for shoppers.
Over the next five years, store space devoted to the clothing and home categories will be cut by 10%.
There will be 60 fewer full-line branches as some are downsized or converted to Simply Food.
In the end, it’s not so much how many stores M&S has that will matter, but how well those shops serve their purpose.
Out go the brands
So what will the consumer find in M&S full-line branches in the coming years?
Well, out go sub-brands Indigo, Collezione and North Coast.
That makes sense. The retailer has suffered from an overabundance of insufficiently distinct labels that have meant more to the buyers than to customers.
Stores are being overhauled to make them easier to shop.
Instead of being displayed according to that plethora of brands, product is being put together according to category.
That, combined with a 10% reduction in the number of clothing lines, is more likely to create a sale than the confusion that the brand approach sometimes brought.
Customers are also more likely to be able to find what they’re looking for – availability has been improved and some sales uplifts are already coming through.
And shoppers are likely to find better value than in the past.
Sharper pricing, especially at the lower end, has already delivered some volume increases and full-price sales have been trending upwards.
Food may not happen simply
All this would make you think that the future’s so bright Rowe’s gotta wear shades.
But that remains far from the case.
Ultimately M&S’s success will depend on whether it can realise its ambition of “delivering contemporary wearable style and being famous for quality wardrobe essentials”.
That’s easier said than done, particularly because of the increased choice available to shoppers, including the rise of online.
The growth of ecommerce remains a big challenge to M&S and show why it’s so vital that it gets its house in order.
The retailer’s online sales were flat in the first half.
“Branch closures at home, about-turns in overseas markets and a continued sales decline in clothing and home are hardly the stuff that retail dreams are made of”
They have to improve to reflect shopper habits, and the lacklustre showing surely reflects the fact that M&S’s clothing is not yet hitting the mark.
And the focus on food space may not be without challenges.
Food is lower margin than fashion.
M&S’s food sales edged down like-for-like, although they grew strongly in total.
It will require careful management to ensure that food profitably compensates for the loss of general merchandise space.
Last week I wrote in this column that few sparks were to be expected from M&S’s update. That’s proved to be the case.
Branch closures at home, about-turns in overseas markets and a continued sales decline in clothing and home are hardly the stuff that retail dreams are made of.
However Rowe has set his destination and mapped out the route he intends to take.
Like predecessor Marc Bolland, Rowe is on a journey. Let’s hope it’s a more direct route to renewal.