M&S's U-turns: Will the latest plans last?

Britain's best-known retailer hasn't always been consistent. As a new chief executive takes over, Richard Northedge reviews its progress

Marks & Spencer has a new chief executive – and yet another new set of expansion plans. Marc Bolland avoided directly criticising his predecessor, Sir Stuart Rose, last week – Rose remains chairman until next year – but scrapping brands, ending Amazon's distribution deal and looking to expand abroad set M&S in a new direction. Again. Rose's Plan 2020, to update IT, is now Plan 2013-15. Rose's Plan A – to make Marks greener – continues, but Bolland has added his own Plan B.

Bolland's Plan for Growth is only the latest of many M&S strategies. In 1956, Simon Marks, the founder's son, launched Operation Simplification, saving money on electricity and paper, but since then the business has staggered to keep up with the times.

There have been U-turns ever since M&S stopped being a penny bazaar. The company invented its own traditions, from not advertising to producing only British-made goods, then tore them up when executives noted how well its rivals were adapting to changes in the high street. Here are some of the most notable examples – raising the question: how long will it be until Bolland's policies are reversed?

Own brands

The name over the doors was "Marks & Spencer", but since 1928 the tags on the clothes said "St Michael". It was the M&S brand, joined briefly by "St Margaret" for women's and children's wear. But after dropping St Michael in 2000, the retailer invented a panoply of new brands.

Customers have been confused by Indigo, Collezione, North Coast, Orient Express, Autograph, Blue Harbour and Per Una. Rose added SP Clothing, View From and DB07. The company now acknowledges that the brands were not developed properly, as Bolland is planning to turn these labels into star names. They will now have their own brand managers and marketing budgets. The upmarket Portfolio fashions will be rebranded as – wait for it – "Marks & Spencer".

Other brands

For decades, Marks sold only its own brands, but in November 2008 it reversed that policy and introduced famous-name foods. Last week, Bolland did another U-turn, however, losing a quarter of the external brands. "The Marmite will be there but we're not going to have Walkers crisps in five different pack sizes," he says.

Customer convenience

M&S refused to accept credit cards for years, even if it lost customers. In 1985 it launched its own card. But it only relented on ordinary cards in 2000.

Marks also resisted Sunday trading when other stores opened all weekend from the 1980s. It belatedly joined the trend in 1994. Now some branches have 24-hour Christmas opening. And the retailer performed a U-turn on post-Christmas sales – and at any other time it needed to clear slow-moving stock.

Fitting rooms

Until 1988, customers could not try on clothes at Marks. They had to take them home and return them if unsuitable. The M&S "no questions asked" refund policy was famous – and famously abused. Having reversed its fitting room policy, the store set a time limit refund policy in 2004.

Advertising

M&S didn't. There were occasional cinema ads and magazine announcements, but Simon Marks shunned marketing, claiming: "Good goods will sell arse upwards." Marks ripped up that policy, and now produces some of the most notable television and poster campaigns with the model Twiggy and Dannii Minogue.

Buying British

Marks was so proud of selling UK-made goods it adopted the "99 per cent British" slogan. Even 25 years ago it acquired a fifth of all the clothing made in Britain and more than half the shirts. But competitors discovered cheap suppliers in the Far East and M&S backed down and started buying from abroad in the 1990s.

Upmarket or down?

Marks & Spencer has fluctuated between chasing the mass market and seeking niches. It started as a market stall, of course, but after decades of serving the middle classes, it opened a Lifestyle store in Gateshead. It proved far too trendy and closed in 2005 with plans for others cancelled.

Selling food brands seen in rival supermarkets was intended to generate volume sales and the "Dinner for £10" campaigns counter Marks's reputation as an expensive grocer. But last week's new plan, cutting the number of external brands and increasing exotic foods, is a move back upmarket. However, Bolland insists: "The brands that we carry are going to be at Tesco pricing."

Location

Every decent town has an M&S and that M&S was in the town centre – near the bus station and the busiest footfall. But rivals realised the convenience of edge-of-town locations, where cheaper property permits bigger premises and car parking. Marks resisted until 1988, then changed policy and opened a store next to Tesco's Hertfordshire base. More quickly followed at retail parks and out-of-town shopping centres.

And having closed smaller stores to concentrate on big units, Marks saw its competition prove size is not everything. It has now opened 352 Simply Food mini-supermarkets.

Ownership

The old M&S philosophy was to own its stores' freeholds. Bolland claimed last week its brands are its assets but his predecessors thought its assets were its properties – collateral for borrowing and a demonstrable asset even when trading turned down.

A sale and leaseback of 78 stores in 2001 reversed that policy. And now Marks, besides not owning all the properties it trades from, does not even own all the businesses trading under its name. Some 195 of the UK Simply Food outlets operate under franchises, outnumbering the 157 that M&S runs itself. Even more of the group's overseas shops are franchises.

International

Marks ventured abroad in 1973 with a chain of 50 Canadian stores and two years later opened in Paris, followed by 37 other European outlets. In 1988 it purchased Brooks Brothers, an upmarket New York outfitter, and Kings, a chain of US supermarkets.

Canada closed by 1999; Brooks and the European stores went in 2001; Kings five years later. But now, Bolland is expanding abroad again. He has 337 overseas stores but wants to build on strengths in Eastern Europe and around Shanghai.

Chairmanship

The retailer split the roles of chief executive and chairman to meet governance requirements – only for Rose to anger investors by taking on both jobs in 2008. They have been separated again, Bolland joining as chief executive in May and banker Robert Swannell becoming chairman next year.

Bolland: He's not just a boss...he's an M&S boss

Deirdre Hipwell

Following in Sir Stuart Rose's footsteps was never going to be easy. But Marc Bolland probably has the best chance as the new head of M&S.

While less of a party-loving man about town than Sir Stuart, Bolland is said by those who know him to be cautious and conservative, but quietly confident. As he should be, with almost 20 years at the world's third-largest brewer, Heineken, under his belt. He started there as a graduate in 1987, and became chief operating officer in 2005. In 2006, he took over the Morrisons supermarket chain.

The 51-year-old Dutchman, son of a car-parts factory owner, lives in Harrogate. He's a car lover – reportedly owning a BMW 7 Series and a 1967 Aston Martin – and a patriotic football fan, supporting AFC Ajax. He's also partial to a bit of partridge shooting; a handy skill in the boardroom.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent