The CEO at M&S has been quick to pour cold water on the store design efforts of his predecessor, but is this assessment justified?

So the M&S refurbishment programme failed to inspire shoppers according to Sir Stuart Rose’s successor. Really? The question that really has to be asked, if you follow this line of thinking is where would Marks & Spencer be now if nothing had been done? The fact that pre-2004 the retailer’s store interiors were frequently dubbed “Stalinist” in the pages of this magazine, and elsewhere, is almost, it would seem, coincidental.

Cast your minds back to the “Luton”, a clunky piece of store fixturing that had been the mainstay of M&S store design seemingly for decades. It was high, truly uninspiring and was all about shifting commodity product in volume. And strangely, although the product was probably reasonable, customers deserted in their droves probably because other stores did look much more inspiring. M&S, in short, looked to be on the way out and there were even those who were questioning whether it would continue in the form that then existed.

Enter new CEO Roger Holmes, aided by Italian retail guru Vittorio Radice. The outcome was the Lifestore, which might have inspired a few, but which few in Geordieland deemed worthy of close inspection and a failure followed. Then along came Sir Stuart Rose who gave direction to Niall Trafford to lead a team that would offer something different…and commercial.

In your correspondent’s humble estimation this was done and done with considerable despatch bearing in mind the magnitude of the task. “Uninspiring”? Is this another way of saying that while M&S continues to plough a steady furrow nothing remarkable has really happened or been announced since the new administration took office and Bolland is covering his back?

It does seem a little churlish to stride in and trash work before you’ve actually done anything much yourself. The really interesting part will be seeing what is different in the autumn when the new edicts have been enacted at store level. This may all sound a little harsh, but walking into a regional branch of M&S on Friday and considering how things used to be, it’s funny how quickly ’good’ become the new norm. Much of what has been done has been little less than reinventing a moribund store estate. Looking with a jaded eye at M&S in the middle years of the last decade it’s quite easy to be a mite cynical about the design outcome. Shoppers are no doubt awaiting an inspirational autumn as new, improved stores are unveiled.