I first walked around Debenhams (probably my favourite at the moment, if I'm going to be honest) then Marks & Spencer and then BHS. I have to admit that it went from the sublime to the ridiculous and so when I heard this week that M&S clothing sales were flagging still, and that BHS looks set to be bought out by a foreign millionaire I wasn't entirely surprised. The whole thing reminded me of something that Margaret Thatcher said - 'I can't bear Britain in decline'. Walking around BHS in particular, it struck me that what I saw was a proud institution that had been brought to its knees.
It seems to me that the problems M&S are experiencing are actually a little bit easier to solve than those at BHS. First of all, the M&S brand still resonates really well. M&S Food seems to be propping up the business, and I think this could be the saving grace. Shopping at M&S Food is aspirational but it's still connected somewhere to value for money. That's important. At a time where people are increasingly worried about what's in their food, M&S still do provide a safe haven where people can feel that they're getting what they paid for. Similarly, M&S as a brand still means something. It hasn't faded to the point that it only means something to its elderly customers. I think what it does need to deal with is the fact that it doesn't really have a face, or an identity.
Mulling this over the other day, it occurred to me that really what they need is a slight repositioning. You just know, that there will be M&S staff who have been there for decades, who care passionately about the place they work. Gathering some of these stories, positioning M&S retail as something constant - with you for life - under a banner of something like 'We are M&S' would position it in that sweet spot of British continuity, but also leave room for updating. It would accept something that seems to have been ignored - that people want to shop at M&S, not because of Twiggy or because the clothes are incredibly good, but because it's what their family has done, and because it's comforting in a time of change to have someone to rely on. Looking around, a lot of their Autumn/Winter range was actually really lovely, the floorsets however were a bit of a disaster. Here, they could learn from Debenhams who really are at the top of their game when it comes to presenting things.
|Getting kitsch in the kitchen|
In Bath, I found some very quaint cereal tins printed with retro Cornflakes and Rice Crispies
designs. What I don't mention is that they were on a crowded plinth with measuring cups, right next to a rack of woks, right in front of a shelving unit full of toasters. Oddly enough, if I went in to buy a wok, I probably wouldn't buy a matching toaster. The whole thing was a nightmare. Similarly, before I could fight my way to the till (fighting through stupidly placed concessions that is, not through throngs of happy shoppers) I had to clamber past rack upon rack of bargain basement CDs. Now, I like Elton John as much as the next shopper - but by the time I've finished at BHS, I just wanted to leave.
I hope that whatever happens to BHS, it can still be improved and brought back to it's former glory. It's the same with M&S - there is a faded glory there that could be capitalised on. The shame, I think, is that the products and pricing are actually very reasonable. These giants just need to navigate the market and start to carve a position for themselves again. Like Thatcher, I hate to see Britain in decline and I hope that our leading ladies get a new lease of life rather than a long overdue retirement.
* I'll be putting my inner Mary Portas back in her box shortly, just in case you were worried.