Marks & Spencer is show­ing its age

The strug­gle of the iconic Bri­tish brand.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - ELIZ­A­BETH PA­TON

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.

BRI­TISH RE­TAIL­ERS

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.

HIS­TORY

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.

DEMOCRATIZING SHOP­PING

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.”

(Ben Quin­ton/ The New York Times)

Out­side a Marks & Spencer store in Stock­ton, June 2018.

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