It has attempted to reinvent itself many times - most recently by announcing plans to dedicate its clothing lines to “Mrs M&S”, its core over-50s customer.
But the latest set of sales figures from Marks and Spencer has revealed that the most recent bid to improve fortunes have fallen flat as clothing sales plunged by almost 9 per cent in the past three months.
A trading update for the 13 weeks to 2 July showed that like-for-like sales - in stores open at the same time the previous year - fell by 8.9 per cent. Meanwhile, total clothing and home sales fell by 8.3 per cent.
In May, Marks & Spencer’s new chief executive Steve Rowe said he wanted to “celebrate and cherish” the “loyal” army of women shoppers aged 50 and over. By concentrating on “Mrs M&S”, Mr Rowe said he wanted to cut back on fashion-focused clothing in favour of plans to “re-establish our style authority”, with an emphasis on stylish wardrobe essentials to win back customers.
His comments came some time after actress Helen Mirren gave a voice to widespread annoyance that M&S appeared to no longer sell dresses with sleeves - a concern repeated by disgruntled shareholders who felt the once reassuringly stylish but safe stalwart of the high street was losing its way.
In recent years, M&S has tried to tap into the younger market, with a recent well-received collection from 32-year-old model and presenter Alexa Chung, which delved into the M&S archives to produce a mix of heritage styles and fabrics combined with some extremely short hemlines.
Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at Stirling University, said M&S had struggled to find the right path. It has recently seen its earnings overtaken by Next and has experienced increased competition from so-called fast fashion retailers like Primark and H&M which have improved their quality.
“There are a number of problems,” he said. “One is what is in the stores - the products themselves and how they promote them. There is also a problem with the competition.
“The idea of deciding what they’re trying to do and to whom is the right thing, but whether they’ve got that right yet, I don’t know. The Mrs M&S thing came over as patronising in some ways. They do have a core set of customers in the 50-plus age group but they need to look at their market overall.”
He added: “Also, age isn’t necessarily the right way to think about things these days. People of 50 today are very different to people of 50 in the past and it is more about how people want to live their lives rather than how old they are.”
Mr Rowe said yesterday: “A key part of our recovery plan for Clothing & Home is lowering prices and reducing promotions. As a result, we ran fewer price promotions while continuing to lower prices to deliver real value to our customers, and moved the summer sale to July. We knew our actions would reduce total sales but we are seeing some encouraging early signs.
Richard Lim, chief executive of research consultancy Retail Economics, said: “M&S’s clothing figures are painfully weak, and fail to stem the loss of market share to other, more-agile, multichannel competitors.
“Its tireless efforts to revive the struggling clothing business have failed to resonate with its core customer base.”Group sales rose by 1.3 per cent over the three month period.