DO YOU shop at Marks & Spencer? I do. I pop in around once a month and buy fabric softener. It’s expensive, and it comes in a small bottle, but I love the scent. If I’m feeling splashy, I’ll go mad and buy some cheese. And maybe a packet of Percy Pigs.
Really though, I can’t remember the last time I spent a significant amount of money in M&S. Last year, I spent an annoying hour in the changing rooms trying on ill-fitting, strangely unfashionable winter coats, finally giving up and heading for Monsoon, where I found what I was looking for in two minutes flat. Before a charity walk last summer, I bought a pair of sensible black jogging bottoms in M&S, but that’s it. My days – and a few years back there were some – of purchasing a significant proportion of my wardrobe from what was once everyone’s favourite high street store are long gone.
It seems I am far from alone. Yesterday, the company posted a 9 per cent drop in half-year pre-tax profits to £262 million, while general merchandise sales, which includes clothing and homewares but not food, fell 1.3 per cent in the second quarter of the year.
And this is despite a glitzy advertising campaign that cost the company £5 million, and features the likes of Dame Helen Mirren and, for reasons best known to herself, the artist Tracey Emin.
Reacting to the results, Anna Santi, deputy editor at fashion retail industry magazine Drapers, told the BBC: “Christmas will be absolutely crucial, and if they don’t have a good Christmas I think investors will be concerned.”
Oh dear. Because on the same day as these less-than-stellar results were reported, it also emerged that M&S is bringing out a cashmere onesie for Christmas. A £199 cashmere onesie.
Whether or not you are familiar with the onesie craze (all-in-one suits designed for slobbing round the house in, make you look disturbingly like a giant baby) you will no doubt be acquainted with the desire for luxury cashmere goods. Putting them together and charging the guts of £200 for them for one is something you might just about get away with if you were Stella McCartney, or Juicy Couture. But let’s face it, if you had the desire to splash out so much money on a cashmere onesie – and I would have concerns about your state of mind if you did – you’re not going to buy it from M&S. You want a label. A designer label. Something cool. And while M&S is many things, it is not, and never will be, cool.
This, I feel, is where M&S just doesn’t think it through. A high street store where middle-class mums buy ready-made fish pies is never going to be cutting edge, and will never have that cachet. The only exception to this is lingerie, where hiring youthful supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to design a collection of underwear for M&S has led to features on glossy magazine covers and a spot on Naomi Campbell’s new TV show The Face.
But this is the exception to the rule. Lingerie has an accessible price point, and M&S have always done a good line in sturdy bras. As Santi went on to point out, when it comes to much of the rest of what the store has to offer, M&S clothes may have become “too expensive”, and Primark does better in balancing quality and price.
Interestingly, the store’s food sales are doing far better than their clothes. Like-for-like food sales surged by 3.2 per cent during the second quarter, suggesting that more people like me are popping in on a reasonably regular basis to pick up a few foodie items. But in these days of Waitrose and half-decent ready meals from the big supermarket chains, M&S food is expensive and no longer unique. This, I suspect, has led to a sense of desperation in their food department, as they dream up increasingly “out there” and unusual new ways to keep their customers interested.
The last time I was in there, they were selling something called “Christmas Granola”, which sounds too depressing for words, as well as a range of over-priced Christmas foodie gifts, the sort you buy for people you don’t know very well, or possibly just dislike.
Is M&S on a relentlessly downward slide? I’m not sure. But as a once-devoted shopper, I know that if it weren’t for that lovely smelling fabric softener, I’d be tempted to stop popping in altogether.