Marks & Spencer dishes up a var­ied course for lo­cal suc­cess

China Daily (Canada) - - BUSINESS - By NICK BEVENS

The staff atMarks and Spencer’s newBei­jing store were all smiles and help­ful­ness on Sun­day af­ter­noon— as they should be, only weeks af­ter the flag-car­rier of Bri­tish re­tail­ing opened what is likely to be­come a cru­cial lit­mus test for its fu­ture here.

M&S’s dis­tinc­tive let­ter­ing lit up out­side the 1,500 square me­ter site on Dec 18, in The Place, a top-end, CBD shop­ping mall.

The Bei­jing store fea­tures care­fully edited col­lec­tions for women, men and chil­dren, along with what it says are 1,200 food and drink items.

Af­fec­tion­ately known on UK turf sim­ply as “Markies”, the 125-yearold chain first ap­peared in China in 2008 and has 10 stores in the Shang­hai area and 20 in­Hong Kong, on top of 840 at home and 480 world­wide.

In the UK, Markies’ food is con­sid­ered qual­ity con­ve­nience, with ded­i­cated food out­lets placed strate­gi­cally in busy rail sta­tions, city cen­ters and high streets to snare work­ers on their com­mutes home: very much a treat for many af­ter a hard day’s work.

In Bei­jing, though, its new­food hall, with just five fridges of its ac­claimed pre-packed, main-meal good­ies, feels more of an add-on than a money-spin­ner.

Just how many value-con­scious Bei­jingers will be tempted to fork out 110 yuan ($16) on self-branded M&S in­stant coffee, 49 yuan on packs of pre-roasted pota­toes, or 39 yuan for small por­tions of cooked Pi­lau rice is a moot point.

Choco­lates, snacks and bis­cuits way-out-num­ber ready-meals-forone or cou­ples or more— an af­ford­able sta­ple for many af­flu­ent Bri­tish sin­gle­tons and fam­i­lies alike.

What struck me most, how­ever, was the whole store’s over­all lack of pizazz.

But maybe that is just what it wants in China.

Its brand­ing here is Marks & Spencer Lon­don: that is the ad­di­tion of the name of a fash­ion-con­scious city that prides it­self on trusted, of­ten un­der-stated Bri­tish qual­ity.

M&S The Place feels comfy rather than ex­u­ber­ant. Its clothes stands of­fer sen­si­ble, un-flashy items, as well as those tar­geted at edgier younger buy­ers. The re­sult is nei­ther one nor the other, ar­guably a case-study in “too lit­tle of ev­ery­thing to make a se­ri­ous im­pact on any”, es­pe­cially racked up against its neigh­bors in this up­mar­ket mall, (Zara is next door), whose free-spend­ing cus­tomers might not con­sider M&S’ of­fer­ings se­ri­ous al­ter­na­tives.

On Sun­day, there were healthy lines at its tills — but what many of the smart check­out as­sis­tants might not have re­al­ized is their new em­ployer has just is­sued a dou­ble-whammy of bruis­ing cor­po­rate news.

Just as the first scuff-marks were ap­pear­ing on its new front doorstep in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal, 10 days ago M&S’s 65,000-strong global work­force re­ceived the shock news that Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Marc Bol­land had sud­denly quit, from what is the most-cov­eted job in Bri­tish retail.

The bomb­shell came on the same day the com­pany re­ported one of its worst Christ­mas sales per­for­mances for years.

M&S’ clothes busi­ness is strug­gling, not only against other depart­ment store ri­vals such as Next and Deben­hams but more no­tably with nim­ble younger fash­ion brands in­clud­ing H&M, Zara and fash­ion re­tailer NewLook— all three of which, in­ci­den­tally, are al­ready strong in China.

Its Bei­jing grand open­ing was glitzy— but just months be­fore, M&S ac­tu­ally shut­tered five sites in China, put down to a re-jigged strat­egy to fo­cus on high-spend­ing cities and its tar­get mar­ket of af­flu­ent Chi­nese.

M&S launched a cloth­ing and food store on shop­ping site Tmall.com in Jan­uary 2013, fol­lowed by a wine e-shop on JD.com in May 2014, and of­fi­cials claim its first Bei­jing site is de­signed to build on its grow­ing on­line pop­u­lar­ity.

On Sun­day, its pulling power re­sulted in an eclec­tic mix of buy­ers: Mums and dads with chil­dren, ex­pen­sive look­ing mid­dlea­gers, trendy teenagers and 20some­things, and a smat­ter­ing of for­eign­ers.

M&S says it wants to be known in Bei­jing for high qual­ity and a wide range of prod­ucts — and so its smor­gas­bord of of­fer­ings to suit all, might just be a clever path to suc­cess.

Con­tact the writer at ni­cholas@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

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