It’s been another hard year for retail. Nicole Farhi and Barrett’s are just a couple of the UK fashion retailers that went into administration this year. Britain’s biggest clothing retailer, Marks & Spencer’s, announced that their apparel sales were down 1.5% and they are gaining more profit from their food sales, an astonishing 10% growth. The result led to The Daily Telegraph asking whether M&S should give up on fashion altogether and solely focus on food.  Quite a radical thought for the UK’s biggest clothing retailer and, let’s be frank, our “go-to” destination for knickers. But with their food sales up 5.3%, going where the growth is must be high on the board room agenda.

But no clothing at all? Or perhaps just less. Arguably their clothing line bears so much equity that M&S should be capable of achieving a profit and shouldn’t ignore it completely.  It has lost its way lately though, especially in comparison to the food side of the business. M&S food has such a clear proposition (helped by a great campaign in ‘not just a…’). It’s posh nosh, not your everyday groceries. Who does their weekly shop at M&S? It has cleverly concentrated on the unbranded side of food too, so they don’t have to compete in price- matching branded goods with the big 5 retailers on staples and everyday brands.

All this turns on its head when you look at fashion. The M&S offer is distinctly everyday, not premium. They are the basics and staples. In clothing, however, what you wear says far more about you than what you eat. Style-conscious consumers like brands and buy into the emotional value of the label as much as the functionality of the item itself.  John Lewis has shown strong growth in apparel this year by carefully selecting brands to sit alongside its own label ranges.  M&S meanwhile has stuck to creating its own ‘brands’ with very mixed results.

Everything points towards a need to be more selective in the clothing M&S offers. To do this M&S needs three things:

1)    A surer sense of self – its purpose and clarity on proposition & character. Who it is & what it does? What makes it different & better?

2)    Focus on a specific target customer, to understand and deliver for.

3)    A revised range, including a simplified brand architecture and easily navigable in-store experience to match.

Just as in its food offer M&S has focused on identifying what it can sell brilliantly, to whom and how, the same principle needs to apply to clothes. Play to your strengths, review what others can do better than you and act accordingly. Perhaps that might mean selling M&S underwear, but shoes by Clarks. Be ruthless in your focus and collaborate to cover your weaknesses. As has been said many times before in fashion, less is so much more.

M&S Fashion and Food

Picture credit: corporate.marksandspencer.com/media/media_library

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