Wednesday, 6 November 2013

M&S & BHS : are Britain's leading ladies dying?

I'm going to let you into a secret - I love department stores. It's odd really, because I don't have enough money to shop in them and my family have never been big Department shoppers - but I can't resist. I found myself with a few hours to spare the other day whilst in Bath and did a bit of window shopping. Invariably, what this means is mooching around department stores, looking at what they have and thinking about where I could buy it cheaper.

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.

So, for M&S I think it's all still to play for. When it comes to BHS, I worry if it might be too late. BHS was bought by Philip Green in 2000 and now sits as part of the Arcadia group with rumours abounding that it could be bought out by a wealthy foreign businessman. If I were him, I'm not sure I'd part with the money unless I was up for a bit of a fight. Where M&S has great brand recognition, and still (I believe) holds a place in peoples hearts, BHS doesn't have that to fall back on. BHS doesn't really mean anything to me, it doesn't mean quality, it doesn't mean heritage. At best, it's the place that my Nan might go to buy fitted sheets. That in itself is a really bad thing. BHS is British Home Stores - it should be the place to go to buy things for the Great British Home. The name in itself talks about quality and britishness. If I were an ad man, there would be endless fun, quirky things you could do with that.

Getting kitsch in the kitchen
Yet - instore, what do we have? When I visited the Bath store, I was confronted with a Christmas gift display not too dissimilar to the one at Debenhams, only that this one seemed positioned just close enough to the door that it was a bit of a confrontation. A bit like M&S, some of the Christmas merchandise was really great but you wouldn't have known because you couldn't really see any of it. Similarly, some of their Home section was really beautiful. They had mock fairisle, flannelette bed linen that just looked like Christmas in a bed. Similarly, whilst the name 'Maison Vintage' just makes me want to cry, the products were actually really well done. Of course, none of this means anything if you can barely see the products, and none of this means anything if you have to trawl through endless racks of rubbish before you can find any of the gems.

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.

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