Some years ago I was designing a range for M&S (Marks and Spencer) and I noticed a number of things that I thought were strange. This year their financial report shows that their profits have been down for the third year running, which comes as no surprise to me. It’s tempting to link the slump in sales to the economic downturn. As a London born woman, I can definitely say that retail has been difficult to make a living in the last few years. People are spending less, and getting their fashion fix from discount retailers. However, none of this is an acceptable excuse for the decline in sales at M&S.
Sky news reported on this story yesterday with a number of so called ‘experts’ in fashion. As I listened to their explanations I noticed that they were listing all of the issues correctly, but their solutions were quite incredible. They completely missed the point and in some cases, used the wrong terminology for the problems [it’s called supply chain management]. I am quite dubious about an ‘expert’ if they can’t get the terms correct.
Here then, are the problems for Marks and Spencer:
- They have no stock when lines are popular. [Supply Chain Management]
- They have misread their customer base or customer profile.
- They are trying to attract the younger customer.
Supply and Demand
Many experts are saying that M&S are trying to attract a younger customer because their customer base is the 55+ age group. This is true in part. If you look at their underwear department, girls of all ages use their measuring services because traditionally it was recognised as one of the best. Lingerie, especially their sports bras for larger busted women, are some of the best on the market. In many cases they run rings around specialist sports companies like Nike and Adidas, who completely miss the support mark when it comes to anything above a B cup.
Despite this, I’ve noticed that in Hong Kong they rarely stock a cup size on even their most basic styles in anything bigger than a C cup. Big mistake Marks. Western women here in Asia are desperate for larger cup sizes and your underwear is some of the best. Why are you not using these great niche products, which are your strongest, to push sales overseas? You are a western company, with a western cut and fit, selling to the western market. Where are your bigger sizes that women struggle to get in Asia? This sloppy allocation system is costing you sales all across the world.
Understanding Your Customer Base
In terms of their customer base the profile is mixed. Yes 55+ is core for many things, but Marks and Spencers also attracts the 40-55 mark for items of quality. So why then are they designing for a younger customer that doesn’t come to their stores? Years ago when I was designing for them I noticed that many of the dresses had no sleeves. Research shows that above a certain age, most women want to hide their upper arms and are desperate for sleeves….. so where are the sleeves? Just by adding them, M&S could make their customer base much happier.
As far as targeting a younger market, have they not considered that women of a certain age don’t go into Topshop anymore? As we age or tastes and needs change, they are not fixed over time. M&S will always have a customer base because we all get older. Trying to put crop tops in their shop won’t entice a younger crowd because they wouldn’t be seen dead shopping in there. They don’t need a younger customer base, they have a solid one right now. Unfortunately they are not giving them the options they want. [As a side note Mark and Spencer’s trend colour palettes are way too young and not specific at all to your customer.]
Issues With the Supply Chain
On the subject of lost stocks, that’s down to their merchandisers. Are they even doing a WISSI every week? There is no excuse for a company the size of M&S to not have experienced merchandisers and buyers that can read and create a WISSI. Their week cover for each unit of stock should be one of the first things they look at. Also, why doesn’t their supplier have access to the figures? Please tell me that they are not still using an old, tired system where their buyers demand everything from their suppliers and share no figures with them? I think they might be. Otherwise the blame for their non existent supply chain management is purely on the heads of their merchandisers. I’m not going to even start on the their e-commerce system because that would literally take me all day. But let’s just say that it’s vast. John Lewis could also benefit from an overhaul on the web, but I’ll leave that all for another post.
Honestly, this is not rocket science Marks and Spencer, this is retail business 101. So how is it that you have been getting it so wrong for so long now? The profits have been down for 3 years, but this problem has been going on for nearly 10 and the bubble has finally burst. All of these mistakes could so easily be solved by doing some proper research and calling in an expert to analyse the date. Although, I certainly wouldn’t recommend the ones on Sky News yesterday.
I’ll leave M&S with a tip. Even a large company needs to understand their customer profile. Your customers ARE your business and Mark and Spencer’s are not being looked after.