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EDITORIAL M&S: a tale of two retailers?

M&S: on the rebound

Marks & Spencer may have delivered it biggest loss in its history, but that only tells part of the story: the retailer is in a state of flux and is set to emerge as a very different beast from its transformation process.

What has become clear is that the nature of what M&S is has shifted. While in-store clothing and homeware sales have collapsed – down 56%, perhaps unsurprisingly with stores shut for large chunks of 2020 – online sales of the same went up 54%. Not enough to offset the former, but a clear indicator that to survive it has to embrace the fact that both clothing and homewares are selling well online across the industry.

Similarly, its online food sales through its very successful partnership with Ocado also managed to claw back what would have been an even more devastating set of year-end numbers.

In fact, food has once again come to the rescue of the retailer, with its in-store food sales also holding up well.

Now, while some of this can be explained by the pandemic and the lockdowns – more online shopping as stores were shut and better in-store food sales as it was deemed essential retail – this masks that fact that what shoppers want to use M&S for has changed. The retailer is no longer seen as the place for sturdy underwear and reliable trousers, today it is a food store, with some fashion basics and hardwearing school uniforms.

Oh and selling stuff from Joules and Jaeger among others.

Its online business, however, is much more diverse. Online it can be a fashion centre; online it can offer a much more chi-chi homewares selection. Online it can offer not only its own food, but all the other benefits that come from being in bed with Ocado.

This means that the new look M&S that will emerge from the rigours of the pandemic is going to be a retailer of two halves: one online and one based around in-store, possibly stocking and selling different things and appealing to differing, if over-lapping, audiences.

Stores will fulfil online, but will be more about foods and showrooming. Online will be where the magic happens. – well, the bread and butter sales.

This is an interesting model – and one that other omni-channel retailers may well do well to acknowledge. It is too simple to look at post-pandemic retail and think that its about doing the same thing across different channels. Shoppers have changed and they look at those channels, even when offered by the same retailer, as fit for different purposes.

M&S’s MS2 plan to put digital first and look at how to work stores into this is the first step. However, the details of its full year results point to more subtle changes in how it needs to look at the role of stores and online.

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