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Nov 8, 2016
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Mrs M&S to the rescue as Rowe goes back to basics

Nov 8, 2016

Marks & Spencer chief Steve Rowe believes "Mrs M&S" can save Britain's biggest clothing chain as it retreats from the battle for younger shoppers who increasingly favour fast fashion trailblazers such as Zara.

If shoppers at the flagship M&S store on Oxford Street are anything to go by, Rowe may be on the right track with plans to streamline ranges and improve the fit, price and availability of basics such as bras, T-shirts and school uniforms.

"I am a Mrs M&S," said Lynne Stone, a 68-year-old follower of fashion who has been shopping at M&S for years.

"It's quite classic Marks & Spencer's but it's up-to-date and they do stuff with a bit of a twist," she told Reuters at the store in central London. "I think their clothing's good."

Successive chief executives at Marks & Spencer have tried to stem years of declining clothes sales since its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when it became the first British retailer to make 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) in annual profit.

In an acknowledgement the 132-year-old retailer no longer has universal appeal in an age of internet shopping and cheap high street fast fashion, Rowe has decided to shut dozens of stores and reduce floorspace for clothes in others.

Rowe, who has been in the job since April, is focussing on better-quality basics for the typical 50-year-old woman who he has cast as the store's saviour, and is taking steps such as reducing product changes to nine next year from 14 now.


Rowe said his strategy was starting to deliver, pointing on Tuesday to the better availability of products and the first rise in its share of full-price clothing sales for five years.

Its Indigo, Collezione and North Coast brands will also be jettisoned to focus on the chain's core M&S, Autograph, per una and Blue Harbour labels, he said, responding to critics who say the stores are confusing and difficult to shop.

Recently retired banker Theresa Oliveira said she had not lost faith in M&S, and she always bought her underwear at the store, but the ranges were confusing.

"Before you used to have jumpers in one place, it was easy. I don't think the brands have worked very well, frankly," said the 61-year-old shopping in the Oxford Street store.

"You go to one place you have trousers, and you go to another you have trousers, and in the end you have to wait three hours to choose a pair of trousers because you're going from pillar to post," she said.

Analyst Honor Strachan at Verdict said the changes announced on Tuesday were necessary but seemed to be missing a vital element which continued to plague M&S: Who is it targeting and where does it want to position itself in the UK clothing market?

"Removing just three sub brands does not seem drastic enough to allow it to more effectively target a clear consumer segment," she said.

"Though it has tried to remove shopper confusion about which brands they should shop by displaying clothing in product categories, as well as making steps towards improving availability and slimming down options, these actions seem like band aids for its core issue of not understanding which segment of the market to go after," Strachan said.

Rowe, however, said the retailer had asked 300,000 customers about what styles they wanted to buy, and in-house designers were now responsible for about 70 percent of stock.

The company has received plaudits in recent years for items such as a 199 pounds suede skirt, but fashion journalist Hadley Freeman at the Guardian said such one-offs represented a "triumph of M&S PR over actual fashion for women".

Shopper Janet Brook, aged 65, though said M&S was indeed getting better at offering the basics she was looking for.

"You always know you are getting good quality with Marks and Spencer and I think that really counts for a lot," Brook said, adding she didn't want M&S to turn its back on clothing.

"It would be a shame if they minimize the clothes, things like underwear, most women's sort of staple."

($1 = 0.8085 pounds)


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