Business View: Memo to M&S - put a knitter in charge of the knitting

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The Independent Online

It could be coincidence. But Marks & Spencer always seems to have a trading slump while my wife is pregnant and not buying clothes. If there is a correlation, M&S investors should feel relieved to know that our forthcoming child should be our last.

In truth, my wife is a good indicator of the health of M&S. I look on the company as being like the Labour Party: it has a core audience which will buy its pants and ready meals come hell or high water, like the core voter who will always put his cross next to Labour whatever its policies. To get elected, Labour must appeal to the swing voter, while M&S can only make its sales motor if it brings in more fashionable, thirtysomething, professional women, such as my wife.

The Vandevelde era innovations, such as Autograph and Per Una, tempted the "swing shopper" in, and it seems that under Roger Holmes, M&S was prepared to go further. The Lifestore concept dreamt up by Vittorio Raddice and the new-look M&S being trailed near Liverpool may be the sort of things that appeal to the trendy. But is new M&S, like New Labour, in danger of alienating its core customer?

The figures last week showed some worrying trends, not least in food, where Maurice Helfgott has been given the reins. The man who brought us M&S's ill-advised investment in a media dot com, and the rather uninspiring Blue Harbour range, seems a strange choice to go up against such industry titans as Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco and Sir Ken Morrison, the new ruler of Safeway. Similarly, it seems a wild gamble to put the urbane, charming Vittorio in charge of the core clothing business at a tricky time. He was great at Selfridges and on Desert Island Discs, but do M&S stalwarts want a theatre of retailing when they're buying socks?

When M&S was last in this pickle, it ended up being monstered by Philip Green. It didn't go to plan for the Bhs tycoon, who turned his attentions to Arcadia (which he bought) and Safeway (which he didn't). Mr Green and I are not really on speaking terms but I don't see him trying his luck again, which many M&S shareholders might think is a shame. They seem to have little faith in the former management consultant Mr Holmes, and the old cry "where are the real retailers?" is ringing round the City.

If you have a homeware expert in charge of clothing, an egghead in charge of food and McKinsey's finest in charge of the shop, you suspect you need to bring the retail spark in from outside. Whether M&S makes the change itself or has change forced upon it now becomes the question.

Hey big spender

Morgan Stanley clearly thinks the markets are turning for the good. It is spending like a sailor on shore leave, but its pleasure is equities experts. Word is that its rival American houses, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, are shopping in the same stores, but just haven't been able to close any purchases.

This has to raise the question of whether one of them will ultimately snap up Cazenove, the last great independent stockbroker in the UK. It is three and a half years since it promised to float, and the troops are waiting for their share options. The trouble is that Caz looks more valuable as a takeover candidate, and even then it would probably go for no more than £1bn. Which, given the way Morgan Stanley is splashing the cash, does not look a big asking price.

Money really does talk

It could be a trend. But the guys brought in to replace the ousted finance directors both at Jarvis and at Shell's exploration and production division used to handle corporate communications. Why? Does a particular skill set gained from talking to journalists and analysts make you a good number cruncher? Or is it that being a good number cruncher is becoming less important than being good at presentation and communication? Is spin overtaking substance?

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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