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“Never the same again” – Stephen Langford of Marks and Spencer | RetailCraft recap

Our long anticipated podcast with Stephen Langford, Director of Ecommerce at Marks & Spencer, hosted by Ian Jindal and Jamie Merrick is now ready to listen to on Spotify and Apple Music!

Give it a listen now for the unique opportunity to learn more about leading UK retailer Marks & Spencer – including internal conflict, crisis management and…something about boomerangs.

For a quick-read reminder of the discussion, scroll down.

Marks & Spencer is a value for money retailer focused on its own label across food, clothing, and home – plus bank and energy services. The retailer operates in around 1500 stores, with a workforce of circa 70,000 and serves 30 million customers a year, on average. 

Langford has certainly had an illustrious retail career, with roles ranging from marketing at Tesco, through to Senior Director of George Ecommerce at Asda. He is now a self-proclaimed “M&S boomeranger”, having worked at Marks initially in 2006 and returning during the pandemic as the new Director of Ecommerce. 

We kicked off our discussion by asking the question on everyone’s lips – why did you return to M&S after such a long interval? 

Langford answered: “Ensuring that we’ve got the right capabilities to drive the fundamental change that’s required is why I wanted to come back. To be part of that transformation was too great an opportunity to miss out.” 

On creating professional retail talent for the industry 

“We still invest hugely and take great pride in the quality of our graduate training schemes and would like to think that they continue to lead the way within the retail industry. But the reality is that the skills required within retail are very different to the focuses 20 years ago…” 

He added that Marks & Spencers have been working closely with Decoded to launch the M&S Beam Academy; an entry level data programme focused on providing a greater breadth of opportunity across all stores and support offices to access the necessary skills for the digital world. 

“Development remains at the forefront of what we need to provide and want to provide for our colleagues and our business but I don’t think we feel as though we have a wider responsibility to bring on the next generation of retail leaders.” 

On partnerships with brands

“Our focus remains on our own brand – that will always be at the core,” he began. 

“We meet a huge number of our customer needs but there will always be those beyond our own label and we would rather be providing our customers that opportunity to see us as a one stop shop rather than for them to feel the need to go to our competitors. 

“It’s all about how we provide a more rounded set of propositions to our customers to keep them within our ecosystem in terms of spending with us and hopefully, shopping more frequently with us.” 

On internal conflict 

To elaborate on his last answer, we asked Langford if this new way of working has resulted in any upheaval within the company. He told us that inevitably there has been a hint of conflict, with concerns around cannibalization and whether sales are truly incremental or not.

“But it’s early days and anyone should expect that,” he said. 

“We want to provide complimentary brands that support and perhaps even elevate our offer – demonstrate our great value credentials. 

“We’ll continue to learn and continue to push forward, making sure what we’re doing is complementary, rather than competitive.” 

How do you develop a culture behind the scenes that can embrace everything from rock solid current accounts, through to quick-and-dirty flexibility working with partners? 

“It is an incredible task,” he laughed. 

“If you add in to that, we need to continue to develop, to reiterate, to improve – all aspects of our technology. But at the same time we need to be managing the unprecedented levels of growth Marks has seen as a result of the pandemic. We sit on an old lady tech stack that was landed 8/9 years ago and over that time has had thousands of engineers interfering with the code. So it becomes a very complex thing to manage. 

“We’re investing very heavily in how we can reimagine, reinvent and construct that stack to make sure we’ve got as much flexibility as possible going forward. 

“It’s no easy task.” 

Architectural view behind the next transformation? 

“We’re in a very different world to what it was 10 years ago and we have spent a lot of time investing in how we move as much to microservices –  as much to the cloud, as we possibly can. 

“Ultimately, we’re seeking engineers to operate in far more agile ways than they currently can today. That means we can continue to release change faster and faster and that we unlock the constraints that we inevitably have within today’s stack.”

Impact of Covid-19 

“Effectively, it accelerated transformation plans,” he stated. 

“For a business like M&S to overnight change into a pure player is really significant in a transformation journey. For that many colleagues to switch their mindset overnight, to change roles overnight, to learn new skills overnight. 

“We had a mantra at the time: ‘never the same again’. That change enabled a big step forward for us. 

“So as we continue to look forward, our shops are open now but our colleagues are performing different tasks to pre-pandemic. We have a very successful online fulfilment operation within our stores as a result of having to pivot and act as a pure player for the best part of the year. 

“Our store colleagues are multidimensional in their responsibilities now, with a lens almost equally of online and in-store sales. That will need to evolve, as we continue to reimagine  the role of our physical space.”

On lessons learned 

Crisis management on the basis – you’re going from day to day, particularly from an online perspective, of how do we manage these unprecedented levels of demand and how do we continue to service our customers in the best possible way? 

“There’s a new challenge every day – it’s dealing with different problems. We’ve all had to learn how to manage a peak or a Black Friday, but what we haven’t learned is how to manage a Black Friday, everyday.” 

Future goals? 

“A lot of our focus priority is around our app and how we can start to do that in a way that adds genuine value to our customers, not just transactional experiences but value add services and experiences.” 

Langford adds that Marks and Spencers are looking towards designing customer experiences across both channels. 

“Our business success rides on our performance in digital and how we operate going forward.” 

The content of this post is rooted in our latest RetailCraft podcast episode #25 which Apple lovers can listen to here and die-hard Spotify users can listen to here!

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