Marks & Spencer is showing its age
The struggle of the iconic British brand.
The British store chain, Marks & Spencer, is not doing very well. An announcement was made to its employees and most loyal customers, this summer, that hundreds of store closures would take place in the U.K. between now and 2022, due to a slowing down of growth and sales. Can the iconic brand, established at the end of the 19th century, survive the rise of online sales and new buying trends?
Stockton- on-Tees, England — This oncebooming County Durham market town in the northeast corner of England has something of a grand past. Known for a time as the Queen of the North, Stockton was the departure point in 1825 for the world’s first public passenger rail- way. It was also the place, in the 1880s, where Michael Marks, a penniless Polish immigrant, got his start as a market peddler, the early stirrings of a business that would eventually become one of the country’s best-known brand names, Marks & Spencer. Stockton had one of the first stores in the country.
2. M & S — or Marks and Sparks, as its affectionately called — is now a cultural fixture in the daily lives of millions of Britons. Most girls are
fitted for their first bras at M & S. A third of the country goes to the store to buy knickers, the British word for underwear. Its Colin the Caterpillar cakes are omnipresent at birthday parties for kids and adults alike, while the chain’s staple candy, the gummy Percy Pig, sells at a rate of 10 pigs per second, or 300 million per year.
3. But on Aug. 11, the Marks & Spencer store here closed. As profit falls and e-commerce reshapes retail, the company will shut 100 stores by 2022 — a corporate restructuring that will play out in communities. “It’s the end of an era, really — it’s ever so sad,” Joe Harland, 84, said as he wheeled his M & S grocery trolley from the store to the car park this summer before it closed.
4. Marks & Spencer is far from the only British retailer experiencing difficulty. House of Fraser collapsed [this summer], requiring a last-minute bailout. Debenhams looks likely to follow suit. And profit at John Lewis plummeted 99 percent in the first half of the year. But M & S is under attack from all sides. Competitors sell cheaper, trendier clothes; supermarkets have raised the quality of their food; and online shopping has become the norm.
5. “If you were building from scratch, you would not combine midprice fashion with premium food and a bit of furniture,” said Natalie Berg, a consultant at NBK Retail. “They are stuck with a business model that is not really relevant any more.” The spread of Marks & Spencer’s shop-floor offerings — once the beating heart of its appeal — could be its Achilles’ heel. In May, the chain announced a 62 percent drop in pretax profit to less than 67 million pounds, or roughly $87 million, dragged down by restructuring costs alongside slumping sales in food and clothing.
6. Founded in 1884, with a slogan that read, “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny,” the business began to flourish after Marks formed a partnership with a onetime cashier, Thomas Spencer. Later, under Marks’ son, Simon, and Simon’s partner, Israel Sieff, the family business boomed, securing a unique foothold in British society.
7. Sally Morrison, head of marketing for Lightbox Jewelry, has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. But she returns to London about seven or eight times a year — and every time she does, she makes a pilgrimage to Marks & Spencer for its underwear and spicy ketchup. She remembers going to the store with her mother in her hometown, Aldershot, about 30 miles southwest of London, at the age of 8. That store closed last year. “Going into M & S is part of the ritual of coming home for me because it has been offering me the same staples all my life,” Morrison said.
8. Allowing aspirational shoppers in class-obsessed Britain to keep up appearances of upward social mobility gave the chain serious commercial and cultural clout. It made previously exotic items like fresh fruit and cashmere sweaters available to the masses. The aisles gave shoppers their first taste of delicacies beyond British borders, from tinned mandarins in the 1930s to avocados in the 1960s and chicken Kiev in the 1970s.
9. “It brought quality, value and innovation at very competitive prices to Brits of all class backgrounds, earning it unparalleled trust and affection, a very powerful thing,” said Stuart Rose, chief executive
of Marks & Spencer from 2004 to 2010. “Delivering what the customer expected and never letting them down was what allowed M & S to produce uninterrupted profit increases from 1884 to 1999.” “Marks & Spencer democratized shopping on a national scale for consumers,” he added.
10. For decades a family-run company, Marks & Spencer was also pioneer in corporate responsibility and benefits. Long before the national health care system, the company, in the 1920s and ‘30s, offered generous medical benefits and free breakfasts for those who started a shift at 7 a.m. Despite Britain’s sentimental attachment, the chain’s all-in-one model, heavily weighted to a motley array of brick-and-mortar stores on High Streets, has not held up well in the era of e-commerce.
11. In Stockton, the departure of M & S has dealt a heavy blow to those who depended on its presence in the town center for more than 100 years. “M & S has been an important part of this community for a long time,” Harland, the 84-year-old customer, said. “We’ve seen a lot of shops shut over the years, though there has been some investment into the town, too. Still, M & S was never one I thought we would see go.”
Outside a Marks & Spencer store in Stockton, June 2018.