LONDON — With clothing sales in steady decline over the past five years, Marks & Spencer is on a mission to clean up and downsize its offer, wean consumers off discounts and promotions, and slash opening price points as it endeavors to rebuild demand among its customer core.
This week the retailer’s new chief executive officer Steve Rowe laid out some of his strategies for the store, one of the country’s largest food and clothing chains, and formerly the bellwether of British retail. Today, it’s the second-largest online clothing retailer in the U.K., with mobile its fastest-growing sales channel.
In past years, the store has seen its clothing division in particular fall victim to a variety of woes: High street and fast-fashion competition, unfocused strategies and a decline in the quality of merchandise that forced once-loyal customers to turn their backs and buy their fashion and basics elsewhere.
“Our home and clothing division has been five years in decline, and over the past three years we’ve lost sales of 200 million” pounds, or $290 million, across the division, said Rowe during his first major analyst presentation on Wednesday, following the announcement of the group’s 2015-16 annual results.
“It is time to focus on profitable growth.”
Earlier in the day, the company reported that year-end profit fell 16 percent to 404.4 million pounds, or $610.6 million, in the 53 weeks ended April 2 on the back of a modest uptick in group revenue — driven mainly by food — and struggling home and clothing sales.
Group revenue rose 2.4 percent to 10.56 billion pounds, or $15.95 billion. Sales in clothing and home were down 2.2 percent on a reported basis, and 2.9 percent on a like-for-like basis. The food division grew 3.6 percent on a reported basis and was broadly flat on a like-for-like one.
Marks & Spencer’s stock was down 9.2 percent to 4.04 pounds, or $5.88, in afternoon trading.
Rowe said the improvements at M&S would come against a challenging backdrop for clothing sales overall. “The clothing market has been flat for the last few months and online clothing sales are slowing,” said the 48-year-old Rowe, who took over earlier this year from Marc Bolland.
He said customers are worried about macro-issues such as terrorist threats, the upcoming Brexit vote in June, and immigration in the U.K. “Sixty percent of women are buying fewer clothes than they did 10 years ago, and today when they do buy, they are looking at value,” he said.
Rowe should know that customer inside and out: He’s spent his career at M&S and is the man credited for building up the retailer’s food offer.
On the back of his success as executive director, food — where he stuffed the stores’ fridges and shelves with gourmet ready meals, healthy takeaways and organic and fair trade products — he was promoted last July to executive director, general merchandise before getting the top job in January.
He’s already begun to put his stamp on the company, shaking up and streamlining the management and buying structure and unveiling a see-now-buy-now fashion collection.
All eyes are on him now to see if he can oil and repair the rusty clothing machine.
Rowe’s address on Wednesday was, in large part, a “mea culpa” to M&S customers. “We are frustrating them with too much choice, and inconsistencies on price and value, and we have failed to find a balance between style and fashion. We’ve gotten it right on food. Customers want the same in clothing. We have to do better.”
He said M&S would be streamlining its wide variety of clothing ranges, and better organizing the way buyers source and purchase products. It will also focus on “wearable, seasonal” wardrobe essentials, targeting “fabric, fit and finish” — rather than fashion — and sharpen prices at the entry level.
“If we can get the core product right, we can sell more volume,” he said.
He added the store would be ramping up the number of trouser blocks for women from four to eight, and slashing the price points of items like T-shirts and jeggings. Going forward, buyers will be ordering with greater depth and aiming to ensure the product is available in store when it’s advertised. Come fall, the product offer will be slashed by 10 percent.
“Thirty percent of the clothing range will have a more competitive price point,” said Rowe, adding that in the past M&S had trained customers to buy on discount, to rely on the “promotional drug.”
He said 40 percent of the clothing and home merchandise was sold on discount last year and, since September, the store has been reducing its promotions schedule while flash sales have been removed altogether from the calendar.
Rowe said the cost of promotions rose 48 percent over the past three years, while the cost of markdowns shot up 19 percent in the same time period.
Rowe and his colleagues warned that all the changes would take time. During the same presentation, Helen Weir, chief finance officer, who is also responsible for strategy implementation, said there would be no improvement in clothing sales in the near term, and it would take time for the changes to trickle through.
She warned that sales trends in the clothing and home division would be similar to those in the fiscal year that just ended.
Earlier in the day, M&S flagged “continued difficult trading conditions” in its international division, and said it put tighter controls over costs in the past year.
The company’s underlying profit before tax was up 4.3 percent to 689.6 million pounds, or $1.04 billion. Costs and impairment charges of 200.8 million pounds, or $303.2 million, dented reported profit before tax, which fell 18.5 percent to 488.8 million pounds, or $738.1 million.