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The Max Attacks: M&S… What a disaster!

by LLB Editor
14th Jan 13 12:00 am

LBC radio presenter James Max on why M&S has lost the plot

Another unmitigated disaster for Marks & Spencer PLC. Not only were the results for the Christmas trading period poor but also they were leaked. Forced into early action, the company revealed the extent of their problems. Food sales may be up 0.3% but general merchandise sales are down 3.8%. Some may comment that it’s not a calamity and it’s not easy for retailers on British high streets. Another retail casualty in the form of Jessops is testament to that. However, I disagree. John Lewis posted a rise in like for like sales of 13%, Next was up 3.9%, Sainsbury was up 0.9%,and even Tesco was up 1.8%. Their peer group is making progress. Marks & Spencer is slipping. Back into their old ways. Investors and management alike should be worried.

Back in December 2011, I called for the CEO Mark Bolland to be fired. It’s clear he isn’t the man for the job. He lacks charisma, doesn’t understand his customers, has a weak management team and this desire to go international is a distraction. They haven’t got their domestic operation right. Gallivanting overseas is the last thing they should be doing.

“Mark Bolland should issue exec director Steve Sharp a P45. It would save M&S £675,000”

Whoever came up with M&S’s Christmas adverts should be fired. Whoever signed them off, should also be fired. This year’s Christmas offerings were another atrocious and probably expensive waste of time and money. “The Greatest Hits This Christmas”. What? Whoever selected the music has awful taste. Their party play list would make any ears bleed. The clothing ad was visually boring and audibly uninspiring. Worse than that it was bland. At no stage did you know this was an M&S ad. And at no stage did you look at any of the outfits thinking, “I’d like one of those”. Clearly you didn’t. Sales were down. Go into one of their shops and the problems persist. Merchandising is all over the shop. Literally. Clutter everywhere, staff disinterested, music hotchpotch, lighting harsh and no visual destinations. It’s just a mess. Nayna McIntosh, director of store marketing and design said “We’ve taken a fresh look at everything and given our stores an exciting new lease of life”. Where? In your mind? Or are the plans locked in a disused office in a basement somewhere in Croydon?

2012 should have been the company’s year. But it wasn’t. The Olympics, return to all things British and restored national pride all provided real opportunities. Yet M&S did very little other than hire Gary Barlow to sing a clapped out old Beatles song. Even the Union flags and napkins they sold were cheaply mass-produced in China.

There is a theme here. The adverts are bad. The marketing is poor. The branding is dull. The in-store experience is confusing and the use of social media inept. And all the key figures taking these decisions report to Steve Sharp, executive director, marketing, M&S. Instead of widening his remit, Mark Bolland should have issued him with a P45. It would save them £675,000 a year (plus benefits, pension and incentives).

Yet this isn’t just about branding and perception. Marks & Spencer PLC is a business. They should be making greater profits. £650m isn’t an insignificant sum but at the end of the last millennium they were making over £1bn. Much as I would not like to see Philip Green take over M&S, his offer of 400 pence a share eight years ago still looks appetising. At 371 pence a share at the time of writing, you do the maths. Admittedly that’s up from 325 pence in July. Which is probably what will, sadly, keep Mark Bolland installed. Shame. However, this business is underperforming. And it shouldn’t be.

“The adverts are bad. The marketing is poor. The branding is dull. The in-store experience is confusing and the use of social media inept”

What about their food? Sales rose slightly. However M&S is losing its lead. It’s no longer the leader in packaged food and ready meals. The innovation has gone. The food and ingredients are often dull. The food is no better or worse than their competitors and as for their Christmas offering? Appalling. Saddled with their “The Greatest Hits This Christmas” strapline, they had the same old boring voiceover man (Matthew Macfadyen), old music (Rod Stewart’s “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) boring us about a selection of snacks that at best looked OK. I love a snack. I love party food. I love exciting tastes and flavours. I love convenience. What I don’t love is when a profiterole is described as “posh”. It isn’t. And right at the end of the ad, the pathetic tackiness continues. Mr Bolland’s obsession with tawdry offers. “3 for 2 on all Party Food”. No! Just sell it at a reasonable price. Don’t mess with me. I am entertaining guests. I want great food that looks and tastes interesting. I want a bit of excitement. So that’s why, this year, I went to Waitrose.

Whilst having a go. Have you ever seen M&S TV? What the blazes is that all about? They have a channel on YouTube and one on their own website. Condescending little videos watched by few, costing a bundle. Teenagers in Brighton are getting more hits by doing the Cinnamon challenge and playing Chubby Bunny. Why? They aren’t boring. M&S can’t even get the descriptions right “This Films”. What? And who is the dull and uninspiring individual talking to us? I love Terence Conran. So where is he in all of this? And gentlemen, have a look at the Blue Harbour video, a “truly British Look”? What? Spending all that money on what looks like a New England set and you’re telling me it’s a British look? Don’t be ridiculous. Mixed messages. Run by amateurs. And don’t get me started on their online presence. It’s so 1993. And that’s surprising. Martha Lane Fox is a non-exec director of the company. Oh. Not that surprising then.

The problems at M&S run deep. It’s not just the direction from the top that’s wrong. It’s the lack of an understanding over what customers really want. The quality and value isn’t there. The innovation has been lost and the team at the top seem to think they are doing everything right. Kate Bostock, executive director of general merchandise is quoted in the annual report saying “This year we put the spotlight back on iconic style and quality of M&S clothing.” Really? Take some teenagers with you to test that theory. Take a range of twenty and thirty-somethings with you too. Take my mum. Take anyone with you and they’ll say the same things. Actually, you don’t even need to bother going into the shop. Just look in the shop window. Bland personified. If the Spring Collection is anything to go by the decline will continue.

James Max presents Weekend Breakfast every Saturday and Sunday mornings on London’s Biggest Conversation, LBC 97.3 FM. He is a qualified surveyor and worked in property and finance for 15 years. After working for one of the country’s leading property advisory firms, he completed healthy stints in investment banking and private equity, before becoming a candidate on The Apprentice, which launched a career in broadcast media. Visit JamesMax.co.uk.

You need to read:

James Max: How to save the high street

The Max Attacks: This month I’d fire Marc Bolland, CEO of M&S

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