Juliet Dunlop: This is not just a crisis, it’s an M&S crisis…

Juliet Dunlop
Juliet Dunlop
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This time last year Twiggy twinkled for all she was worth. Life in Marks & Spencerland was simpler then: whole mornings whizzed by frolicking in synthetic snow with Antonio Banderas; afternoons disappeared alongside David Beckham on a carousel; and evenings were spent with Myleene and Dannii – toasting marshmallows under an M&S night sky lit up with the promise of a Christmas all under one roof.

Now a bitter, chill wind has swept through the retail fantasy. Antonio and David have gone, the carousel has ground to a juddering halt and even Twiggy, still wearing her Per Una coat and angora-mix snood, has been sent packing. Cruelly, and almost without warning, Marks & Spencer has ditched the face of the Sixties along with all those other celebrity stalwarts who appeared in the Christmas ad campaigns. After 12 long years, the party is over.

Now, maybe it’s a coincidence but the new M&S adverts, shown for the first time this week, are pretty ordinary. They look sort of cheap in comparison with the extravagant campaigns of the past, and given the current economic climate, that may well be the point. You see, M&S is desperate to reconnect with you and me and all the millions of other customers out there who used to keep the tills ringing. But our old, familiar friend and bellwether of the high street, has stumbled. M&S has just reported a big fall in profits – and not for the first time either.

The problem is M&S is out of fashion and consumers have more choice than ever before. The finger of blame has been pointed at clothing – the division reported its worst sales performance in three years – and womenswear has been singled out. Food sales are propping it up – a fact borne out in numbers, but one that most customers could easily have pointed out.

Just take a look around your local store. It’s a confusing jumble of brands within brands – Limited Collection, Portfolio, Indigo, Classic Collection, and the rest. It tries too hard to be all things to all women and, increasingly, fails. Certainly, this is the case if feedback on the M&S website is anything to go by: “frumpy”, “ill-fitting” and “poor quality” are the words most frequently used.

And as if the sales nosedive and the frumpy accusations weren’t bad enough, the strong performance of cut-price rival Primark further highlights its failings. Sales have soared at Primark despite the difficult trading conditions, proving cheap and cheerful doesn’t mean cheap and nasty – at least not in the minds of younger customers.

So, could the days of popping into Marks & Spencer for a sandwich and leaving with a new coat and a pair of shoes instead, really be over? Is it in danger of becoming a retail wasteland? Not quite. M&S boss Marc Bolland has promised to put the spark back into Marks & Sparks. He’s turned to flashy, slightly trashy American brand Victoria’s Secret to re-think the underwear. It still sells, although pants have been problematic over the years. (They, you may recall, came to the fore when Jeremy Paxman claimed they no longer provided “adequate support”.)

Other big names from Jaeger and House of Fraser have also been brought in to shake things up and sort out the website. The problem is that M&S doesn’t do “fast fashion” and the efforts of the new line-up won’t hit stores until next autumn.

In the meantime, perhaps M&S should just go back to basics – concentrate on quality and value for money – re-engage with loyal, core customers. For years now, it hasn’t been one thing or the other and no shop can please all of the people all of the time. Walk down any high street and challengers to M&S are everywhere. The recession has further loosened its once dominant grip. Its slogan is “Your M&S” – it just needs to decide who that actually is. And, if it’s the middle market, it needs to remember that the middle is now officially “the squeezed middle”. It’s just as well the turkeys are flying off the shelves or the M&S boss may not be the only thing slowly roasting over an open fire this Christmas.