Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Changing High Street gives M&S some food for thought

Marks & Spencer must do something about its women's fashion range or the 180 jobs lost in Mallusk won't be the last, writes Donald C McFetridge

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with Sir Stuart Rose during his tenure as chief executive officer of Marks & Spencer. On that occasion, he shared the secret of the success of M&S in two simple words: nimble and bold.

Sir Stuart insisted that it was important to respond expediently and with purpose to market conditions and to fully acknowledge consumer demands and changes in behaviour, while being courageous enough to be bold in the face of the ongoing challenges facing the retail sector.

Under the leadership of the present CEO, Marc Bolland, the board of M&S still seems to be taking the same approach, but with the addition of a third word: ruthless.

Nothing less could explain their sudden decision to close four stores in the Republic – located in Tallaght, Dun Laoghaire, Mullingar and Naas.

These stores, which up until recently had been trading successfully, are to be closed in the near future, along with their distribution centre at Mallusk.

Like every other retailer, M&S is constantly reviewing its store operations – not just in Ireland, but in every other region where they operate.

Obviously, these four stores are under-performing and will consequently be removed from the M&S Ireland portfolio.

It is worth noting that M&S has faced heavy criticism over their clothing ranges and this appears to be one of the biggest problems – and probably the principal reason – for the closures.

It should, however, be acknowledged that their food-retailing operations continue to be extremely successful both north and south, as customers continue to flock to their food halls.

Their food retail offering is second-to-none and they are still widely regarded as the premium food retailer in Ireland.

However, there is a flaw. It is still not possible to do a full food shop in a M&S outlet – in spite of the fact that they have started to sell other leading manufacturers's brands in some outlets.

While their food offering is of the highest standard, it is still necessary to visit other food retailers in order to meet the increasing demands of the average household.

This is why I believe that there is a gap in the market for a high-end, top-quality food retailer, where consumers can do a full shop and have all their demands met under one roof.

Northern Irish consumers do not currently have this provision.

The retail food marketplace here has matured and settled down since the arrival, in 1996, of Sainsbury and Tesco and many consumers regard them as having little to differentiate themselves from each other.

I firmly believe that the time has come for a change, as consumers here – like their counterparts in other parts of the UK – still crave luxury of the type provided by M&S, but to a much greater extent.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees and will point to the four store closures in the Republic as evidence that the market has reached saturation point.

However, it needs to be re-emphasised that this is not the reason for the store closures there.

Food retailing, north and south (with growing populations in each) has never been healthier. The real reason M&S is closing these stores is due to the fact that they have singularly failed to satisfy consumer demand in respect of their clothing ranges.

They must – with greater urgency – address this issue if we are not to see the closure of more outlets.

One thing is certain: the High Street needs to continue to evolve (including store rationalisation) if it is to remain a relevant and meaningful part of the future of retailing.

Hard as it must be for the 180 employees facing the dole in Mallusk, these M&S closures are not part of the problem, they're part of the solution.

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