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M&S Interview

Not just a website, an M&S website

M&S asked its customers what they wanted from its new website. Chloe Rigby talks to David Walmsley, director of M&, to find out what they said

WHEN M&S STARTED to build its own ecommerce platform in-house, it asked its customers what they wanted of its new website and how they would use it. It asked in-depth questions through videoed interviews and vox pops, and the answers shoppers inspired the customer experience. It’s an approach that has paid off. IRUK 500, 2015 research puts M&S well ahead of the field in the Brand and Engagement performance dimension. The retailer scores particularly well on site responsiveness and on social media integration.

David Walmsley , director of M&, says two clear shopping styles emerged from its work with shoppers. Sometimes customers took a transaction-focused approach to the website, finding and buying particular items quickly. At other times, customers wanted help. That might be help putting an outfit together or adding accessories, or help with interpreting trends. “For us,” says Walmsley, “the editorial focus on ‘style and living’ on the site is about supporting our customers’ style needs in terms of ‘help me, interpret that trend for me’. Many of our customers have a persistent style that works for them, but they would like to pick up on the monochrome or colour-blocking trend without making themselves into something else.”

The result is seen in the way content is used alongside commerce throughout the site. Short “snackable” stories such as the pick of the day sit alongside longer features about, for example, actors and actresses who represent the brand. All of this helps to create what Walmsley described to InternetRetailing Conference 2014: (IRC) as a “daily drum beat” of stories that draws visitors back regularly.

The number of people using M&S’s tablet and mobile sites overtook desktop users in April 2014 – and has continued to grow

Alongside this content, a curated ‘why not try’ section at the top of website pages shows product suggestions driven by Rich Relevance software, sharing recommendations ‘learned’ from customer use of the site. Today, customers are using the site as the initial research suggested, with behaviour ranging from a simple search and purchase, to Saturday night browsing from a tablet during X Factor. “People are spending a lot more time browsing on the device,” says Walmsley. “It’s almost the equivalent of reading a magazine.”

This kind of understanding of how customers use the site is “fundamental”, Walmsley told delegates at IRC. “It helps you not to misread your numbers and it also helps you understand what sort of experience you’re looking to create across different devices. It would drive you, for example, towards making sure your basket is portable across different devices.” That’s a particularly germane point for M&S, which knows that while Saturdays are the biggest day for customers to browse its website from their tablets, that’s also the day that conversion from the device plummets. Why? M&S shoppers, it seems, may browse the site and put items in their baskets from a tablet – but then they move to the desktop when they want to buy.


M&S shoppers like to talk about their purchases over social media, and the retailer helps them to do just that. The IRUK 500 research in this Dimension found the retailer was present on six out of nine of the social networks assessed. That presence is managed by a dedicated social team, just one of a new generation of retail teams who now work in-house at Marks & Spencer.

David Walmsey: “If our customers were all on Snapchat, we’d be there too” Photo by Adrian Brooks/Imagewise

Right now, the main focus is on Facebook and Twitter because that’s where M&S customers want to engage. Where Twitter, for M&S, is a channel to react to customers’ posts through a team in its contact centre, Facebook is more about conversations between customers, showing the “phenomenal level of engagement that customers have with our brand”. That may change in future, and when it does, says Walmsley, M&S will too. “We’re well set up to adapt for the future,” he says. “If our customers were all on Snapchat, we’d be there too.”

On-screen social monitoring at M&S’ UK and Indian contact centres means social media teams can track and respond to trending themes and comments 24 hours a day. M&S’ autumn/winter 2014 campaign provides a practical illustration of how M&S’ engages with its customers across channels. The campaign ran on television but was built on and extended online, providing answers to shoppers’ practical questions on how they could wear featured looks, while also inspiring them to try something new. Bloggers were involved. Sasha Wilkins, aka Liberty Girl London, for example, made videos on how to wear clothes, providing, says Walmsley, “incredible advice from an alternative source”.

In a multichannel world, digital content complements the store. “The physical environment can do a fantastic job on the product,” Walmsley says. “The digital space plays more to the lean-back conversation you can have with customers.” The new site went live in February 2014. Customers seem to have responded with initial caution. Online sales were down by 6.3% in the first half of M&S’s financial year, to 27 September 2014, compared to the same time last year. However, the figures appeared to improve between the first quarter, when online sales were down by 8.1% and the second, when they improved to -4.6%. In its half-year figures, M&S predicted a return to ecommerce growth ahead of Christmas. “I think everyone who has moved from one platform to another,” says Walmsley, “has experienced a period of transition. We went through massive amounts of change.” But, he says, “What our customers are telling us is that they’re increasingly enjoying shopping on the website and are happy with the experience.”

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