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To save itself, Marks and Spencer must choose between clothes and food

To save itself, Marks and Spencer must choose between clothes and food

On the day that Marks and Spencer disclosed another set of dismal results, I travelled from southwest London to Cumbria for my mother’s funeral. She was devoted to M&S, so much so that my father once bought her shares in the chain as a present. What she liked was popping into the local store for food on her way home from the school where she taught. We were kitted out in M&S clothes – I can’t recall us wearing any other brand when I was a child.

Back to the journey’s beginning. Near where I live in London there’s a M&S food hall. It’s constantly busy, appealing to people of all ages. Since it arrived, the neighbouring specialist food shops have suffered, and some have closed. It’s noticeable though that the same folk who said that would happen when M&S’s plans were first mooted are to be found in its queues with full baskets.

Cut to Euston station. There, on the edge of the concourse is another M&S, also selling only food. It’s doing a roaring trade with those heading for trains to the midlands, northwest and Scotland, seeking sandwiches and snacks for the journey; likewise with commuters going home wanting an evening meal.

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Then to Barrow, where the shop so beloved of my mother is closing next year. The Barrow branch is a traditional, large, main shopping street M&S, offering food and clothes. Soon it will go, with the company opening a food-only outlet in Ulverston, seven miles away. Sitting behind a screen in London, a distance of seven miles may seem short. For those living in Barrow, though, it’s a long distance. The roads are poor, public transport is slow and weak. Barrow, a place of around 56,000 inhabitants, will find itself devoid of an M&S; whereas Ulverston, less industrial, a market town, nearer the Lakes, a bit posher and with a population of 11,500, gets one.

Doubtless, there will be shoppers from Ulverston and the surrounding area who visit the M&S in Barrow. So for them, their food store will now be closer. But Barrow has its regulars, too, those like my father, now sadly on his own, who also like to buy their food from M&S.

It makes little sense. Then, not much with M&S these past 20 years has made sense. That’s the length of the group’s decline, from peak profits of more than £1bn (the first UK retailer to break that barrier) to the just-announced £177m. Arguably, the rot set in back then. The chain had cumbersome supply lines versus its fast-fashion rivals; its ranges looked dowdy and old-fashioned; it was slow to accept any credit cards other than its own charge card; for too long it paid only scant attention to online shopping, allowing competitors to forge ahead. There were other mistakes as well.

Some of them have been corrected, but to little avail: M&S’s downward path continues. One abiding theme of the intervening years has been the promise from the top. From the new top, that is. Because rather like Manchester United, a football club that once enjoyed similar success, the manager’s chair has seen several occupants. All of them pledged that they would arrest the fall, all of them unveiled a strategy that looked remarkably similar to their predecessor’s, all of them set out with bold intentions. Until they left.

They even used the same language of “transformation”. Roger Holmes (remember him?) said so when he was chief executive in 2004. Steve Rowe, the current boss, is saying it again, proclaiming: “We are in the first stage of our transformation programme.” Rowe, though, clearly mindful of what has been said in the past, has an added twist, that this “transformation plan is now at a pace and scale not seen before at M&S”. His effort may appear familiar, but it’s faster and bigger. That does not inspire confidence. It’s the same trick, but moved up a notch or two.

The previous drives – albeit slower and smaller – did not get anywhere. It’s hard to suppose the Rowe version will be any better.

Where we’ve got to with M&S, it seems to me, is a management (makes that successive managements) avoiding the obvious. Clothes and food do not mix. They once might have done when there was not much else that was affordable or good quality on the high street, and no world of online. Choice was scarce, young had to shop alongside old. Not today, not for many years in truth.

The stark choice facing Rowe and his chair, Archie Norman, is to stick with a formula that is not working, and despite yet another “transformation programme”, may still not work; or split clothes and food. Of course, a break-up is not easy – they share systems, employees, offices, stores, stockrooms – but a successful food business, with lots of potential (judging by my southwest London local and Euston) is being dragged down by a fading clothes one.

It reminds me of something Stuart (now Lord) Rose told me when he was running M&S. He challenged me to name the most profitable M&S store. I guessed, lamely, the massive flagship at Marble Arch. He shook his head: the tiny by contrast, new food branch at Waterloo Station. They had the answer in Rose’s day, and they have it now. 

But Norman says a divide is “impractical”, pointing to “very strong sinews that join the business together”. This reads like an excuse, not a positive reason. So, in too many towns and cities, food and clothes must stay together. 

On my trip, I saw the two faces of M&S: in South-West London and Euston, the booming food-only; in Barrow, bustling food and deserted clothes side-by-side. Genuine transformation is staring Rowe and Norman in the face.

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