Before and after: in search of 'theatre' at the new M&S

'Very corporate and a bit Radio 4.' Even the revamped offering fails to get full marks as a design expert takes Abigail Townsend on a tour of two stores
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The Independent Online

Next weekend, for most people, promises a three-day break from work. For Stuart Rose, however, it will mark a career landmark. Because it was over the May bank holiday last year that Roger Holmes was ousted as chief executive of Marks & Spencer and Mr Rose brought in to replace him.

Next weekend, for most people, promises a three-day break from work. For Stuart Rose, however, it will mark a career landmark. Because it was over the May bank holiday last year that Roger Holmes was ousted as chief executive of Marks & Spencer and Mr Rose brought in to replace him.

The former Arcadia chief's mission was clear: see off the billionaire stalker - and his soon-to-be former friend - Philip Green, and then turn the business around.

Mr Green eventually conceded defeat in his £9.1bn assault. But the second part is proving harder for Mr Rose: at April's pre-close update, he revealed a 6.3 per cent slump in underlying sales. Final pre-tax profits, due on Tuesday, are expected to come in between £610m and £625m, down on last year's £805m. And with successful rivals such as Next reporting dire trading, the omens for M&S are not looking good.

Mr Rose has pointed the finger at subdued consumer spending, and will no doubt repeat that M&S's turnaround is a long-term project, particularly as he inherited a huge yet largely run-down estate of 400 stores selling both fashion and food.

Improving this part of the estate (M&S also has 130 "Simply Food" stores) is a vital part of the recovery plan. Cosmetic changes have taken place here and there, while four complete refurbishments were carried out last year - at Shoreham in West Sussex, Basingstoke in Hampshire, Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and on London's Edgware Road.

M&S refuses to divulge how the trial has gone, but it is understood that on Tuesday Mr Rose will announce at least a partial roll out. Questions will also be asked at the results about how much it has, and will, cost. Capital expenditure for the current year is expected to be between £300m and £350m, and some analysts have predicted that a total overhaul of the estate could cost as much as £1bn.

To assess just how big a job Mr Rose has on his hands, and how successful the trial has been, The Independent on Sunday took a retail design expert around two stores. Both in London, the first is one of M&S's biggest, the Oxford Circus branch known as the Pantheon. The other is the refurbished Edgware Road store.

Our expert is Mark Dickens. A specialist in architectural design, he co-founded "astound", a retail design agency which provides advice on all aspects of store design, including brand management, point-of-sale material and corporate literature. Its clients include Starbucks, Superdrug and Tesco, where it worked on the Metro concept.

I meet Mr Dickens outside the Pantheon, and already he is unimpressed. The sparse window display sports a mannequin in an ill-fitting bikini, with a bag, hat and pair of shoes in a neat pile next to it. A poster behind bears the slogan "holid*y". Windows are the biggest chance a retailer has to lure people in and, says Mr Dickens, this doesn't hit the mark. "Where's the theatre, the excitement?"

Matters don't improve inside, where £6 T-shirts are the first thing you see. Small surface improvements have been made, such as the pink Per Una heart logos that adorn the walls. But, asks Mr Dickens, "Where's the news? What's different from last year, last month? They're not telling us anything. The consumer these days is different from 25 years ago, and M&S seems to have forgotten that. Now we choose to go shopping - we go up and down the high street. We can buy T-shirts like that anywhere. That's the underlying understanding that's missing."

A long, wide avenue leads to the centre of the store - "a motorway past the merchandise" - while racks to either side are arranged in ways that Mr Dickens calls "barriers, obstacles to making people shop". Suntan lotion is dis- played next to swimming costumes, maintaining the holiday theme, but not with aftersun lotions. "That's a £7.95 sale you've just lost," says Mr Dickens. A "two for one offer" is easily missed.

Other problems catch Mr Dickens's eye: there is no pen to fill in application forms at the "Your Money" counter; changing rooms aren't well-signposted; it is not clear where you are supposed to pay; and the lingerie department is a confused mix of sensible bras and leopard-print knickers.

Only so many cosmetic changes can be carried out in such a big store. But that has not stopped M&S making errors which could easily be put right. Mr Dickens notes that accessories are on the first floor, away from the ground-floor womenswear range. "I would mix the whole store up. They have arranged the stock like they buy it - and they are selling what they buy, not what the customer wants."

It is this confusion about who M&S is selling to that is his biggest gripe. Per Una is obviously for younger women, the Classic Collection for older ones. Yet Mr Dickens argues that this distinction shows M&S is not in tune with social trends. "People who used to be 40 and shop at M&S are now 60, and the people who are 40 are a different sort of people. Everybody is younger." Surveying skirts with elastic waists, blouses and beige trousers, he remarks: "My sister is 47 and there's no way she would wear any of this."

Things get off to a better start at Edgware Road. Although Mr Dickens remains sniffy about the window displays - "very corporate and a bit Radio 4" - he concedes they're busier with a bigger mix of merchandise. Inside, bags, shoes and scarves are racked together in colours and styles, and only a stone's throw from womenswear.

There are other improvements. Changing rooms are clearly marked, the lighting is kinder, and an obvious pay station is slap in the middle of the store. The "Your Money" counter not only has a pen but a free telephone for queries. The sign shouting "two-for-one" on suncream is bigger, and the display includes aftersun.

An M&S insider concedes mistakes were made in the past and says stores such as Edgware Road are about addressing that. "We needed to create a much more enjoyable shopping experience. The feedback we got [on old stores] was that 'it's dull, it's flat, it's not easy and we can't find the product. You are making it hard work for us.' So we have changed everything: walls, lighting, the equipment, the fitting rooms, the tills."

At Edgware Road, around 3,000 sq ft was taken off food and given to clothes and accessories, allowing M&S to sell ranges such as Per Una and its Limited Collection.

It should, however, be remembered that Edgware Road is considerably smaller than Oxford Street (16,500 sq ft against 99,650 sq ft), which is part of the reason everything feels more connected. And problems do remain. Although childrenswear, an area where M&S continues to lose out to rivals, is more visible here than at the Pantheon, it is sited in what Mr Dickens dubs "cupboard space" - an area with the same entrance and exit."

Some of the store's windows are also blacked out, with the area housing changing rooms instead of displays. "It's the sort of thing an architect would do," says Mr Dickens. "It's some of the best retailing space they have." Outside, that means most windows are covered in photos - moody black-and-white shots of models backstage at a fashion show. But as Mr Dickens notes, they will date and are expensive to replace.

Despite Mr Dickens's reservations, M&S had increased the window display space - from two to four. The insider also defends the photos, claiming they will be changed twice a year and are no more expensive than printing graphics for traditional displays.

Overall, Mr Dickens calls Edgware Road a "step in the right direction" and concedes that M&S is learning from rivals in layout and feel. But there is a caveat: "Ultimately, it's all about merging operations and the commercial environment and the actual trading mentality. If you don't, you're not going to drive sales, you're just doing to have pretty shops - and they are in danger of doing that here."

The City will hear Mr Rose's views on the refurbishment programme on Tuesday and, as he is likely to back rolling it out, he is expected to speak highly of it. But get this wrong, and all his plans for M&S could be undermined. Less than a year ago he rejected a £9.1bn takeover approach, insisting M&S could be turned round. And sooner rather than later, the City will want to see proof he was right.