When Marks & Spencer throws open the doors of its inaugural Lifestore next Wednesday, Middle England could be in for quite a shock. The out-of-favour retailer has thrown caution to the wind with its latest attempt to resurrect its status as bastion of the nation's taste.
In jettisoning its elegant-if-twee range of home furnishings - which consistently failed to establish it as a major player in the £24bn market - for a new sleek-and-chic look, the group has not opted to play safe. Nor would you expect it to after securing the hiring coup of 2002 in Vittorio Radice, the 46-year-old Italian who gave us shopping as theatre in Selfridges and who was part of the team that revived Habitat in the early Nineties.
Mr Radice has spent the past year hidden away from the prying eyes of the City, working on a project that his beleaguered boss, Roger Holmes, is praying will jump-start the recovery that has once again looked beyond M&S's grasp in recent months. He has been given free rein (and a £60m chequebook) to come up with 12,000 new products that span our every movement, both waking and sleeping.
The fruits of his labour have been kept under wraps, with no one, not even nosy journalists, allowed a sneak preview of the Gateshead store that promises to revolutionise how everyday items, from tables and chairs to kitchen units and sofas, are sold. Central to this is what could turn out to be the biggest gimmick of the lot - a house designed by the minimalist mastermind John Pawson that will appear as if dropped into the centre of the store.
Whether Mr Radice will succeed is open to question. A thorough perusal of its new Lifestore catalogue - or "Design Directory" if you will - produced under the Wallpaper founder Tyler Brule's watchful eye and published at the start of the month, has failed to convince many on The Independent's business desk, some of us first-time buyers and presumably part of M&S's target market.
Analysts note the home furnishings market is fiendishly competitive, with retailers as diverse as the supermarket group J Sainsbury, the Spanish clothing chain Zara and the pick 'n' mix retailer Woolworths all eager for a bite of the multibillion-pound cherry. Even B&Q, the vanguard of spit-and-sawdust do-it-yourselfers, has revealed its ambitions in the softer end of the homeware world with a major push into bedroom furnishings forming part of its strategy to increase its share of the market.
With Ikea still the byword for cheap and cheerful home furnishings and the top end beyond the grasp of M&S, Mr Radice had little choice but to pitch his wares at the middle end of the market. Tony Shiret, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, thinks this could be his downfall. "Middle market furniture has always been the siren on the rocks. Will M&S be the ship that runs on to it? We'll have to see," he asks. Another analyst added: "It's an extremely crowded marketplace. Everyone is trying to appeal to a similar customer base."
For now, M&S is not trying to run before it can walk. After Gateshead, it has promised to open only a further two stores: one in London's Kingston-upon-Thames this summer and another in summer 2005 in West Thurrock's Lakeside Retail Park. Mr Radice has said he will need to have at least three or four stores up and trading before he has any idea whether the Lifestore concept will work. Although its 300-page catalogue showcases the best of its products, just 40 stores out of its 330-plus estate will stock a selection of the goods themselves and of those, just 23 promise to stock a "larger range", leaving that "Design Directory" the most realistic option for most people. That's all well and good when the product you are selling is tried and tested, but not when anxious shoppers, mindful of M&S's track record on such matters, want to check their £599 sideboard in walnut veneer represents good value.
Talking of value for money, the jury is out on how many people would think £475 for a nest of three tables is worth the expense; similarly, a two-seater sofa for £1,299. Remember M&S's aim, according to Karl McKeever, of Visual Thinking, the retail marketing consultancy, is to get customers to adopt the same throwaway mentality to its homeware as to its fashions. "It wants people to buy a vase in the same way as you might buy a skirt or to replace a dinner service, or set of cushions, every 12 to 18 months," he says.
Mr McKeever is wary of, if not surprised by, the overtly trendy and modern style adopted by Mr Radice. "He needs to ensure it doesn't alienate an audience who are interested in traditional design or who aren't just looking for contemporary as their main look," he warns. Of the catalogue - which like the new store is organised into nine life themes such as "Relax" and "Play" - he thinks it is "high on style and low on content", pointing out that he for one would not be prepared to pay those prices and still have to assemble many products himself. But his greatest fear centres on how M&S displays its new ranges away from its fancy new Lifestores. "The acid test is that its products will only work if people display them with the flair they deserve - if the store looks crap, people won't buy," he says.
Steve Gotham, at Verdict, the retail consultancy, shares Mr McKeever's concerns, especially about the shop floor. Commenting on how the new homeware products are displayed at the group's flagship store, he says: "They don't make enough effort to engage customers with enough information about a particular line to reinforce the quality message."
With such a weight of expectation out there, CSFB's Mr Shiret cautions that people should try not to get too carried away. "Frankly it's only a trial. M&S has trialled things in furniture before that haven't worked but Mr Radice is not a man to be underestimated," he said.
Stylish Radice faces his biggest challenge
The Man from the über-glamorous shores of Lake Como will be returning to his roots with the launch of Marks & Spencer's souped-up furniture range next week.
In M&S, the normally unglamorous retailer, Vittorio Radice faces arguably his biggest challenge yet; if his new home furnishings range is a success he will help to divert attention away from the group's plunging women's clothing sales.
Yesterday saw Mr Radice's remit being extended yet further - possibly in an attempt to stamp out rumours that he is unhappy at the group: his name is among those touted as a possible successor to Domenico De Sole, the soon-to-be-ex chief executive of Gucci.
The "home" director has been charged with revamping M&S's uninspiring store estate in order to "develop its customer proposition". Initially this will see it trial 10 new-look stores, starting with its high street site in Basingstoke. Others will follow in Chelmsford, Lincoln, Aylesbury, Barnstaple, Telford, Stratford-upon-Avon, Tunbridge Wells, Richmond, Kendal and Dumfries.
The passionate Mr Radice, who prefers backpacking to ensconcing himself in five-star luxury, professes to enjoy the simple things in life, yet can afford to treat himself with his bumper pay packet. He was awarded a £1.2m "golden hello" and can earn up to £1m a year, including his bonus, if the Lifestore concept takes off.
Whether he can in turn imbue M&S's homeware with the same must-have status that he bestowed upon Selfridges, the Oxford Street department store where he worked until last year, is quite literally the multibillion-dollar question.Reuse content