Chris Blackhurst: Fish supper with that scarf, madam? M&S boss faces uphill task

Midweek View: To smash Waitrose at food, Zara at clothes and Net-a-Porter online is well-nigh impossible

Shortly before he took over at Marks & Spencer, I toured a Morrisons store with Marc Bolland, when he was still that group's boss.

He was impressive, a chief executive clearly on top of his game, confidently extolling the virtues of Morrisons' twin "freshly-made-in-store" and "value for money" principles. With his background as chief operating officer of Heineken, Mr Bolland clearly knew all about supply chains and distribution systems. He was sharp on pricing, able to deliver fresh bread, pizzas and fish to the customer cheaper than his rivals.

But could he hack it with M&S? It's easy to suppose that the difference between running Morrisons, one of our biggest supermarket chains, and M&S, is slight; Heineken is a beast of an organisation, a true multinational brand. The M&S head-hunters clearly supposed that in Mr Bolland, ex-Heineken, ex-Morrisons, they'd got their man.

However, M&S is not the same as other companies. The stark truth about M&S in the 21st century is that you wouldn't launch such a company now, would you? Selling clothes and food side-by-side in a shop in the centre of a town no longer makes sense. It did once, when M&S was all there was, and parking was not so difficult. But not today, with out-of-town and internet shopping, and firms that specialise in fashion, or sell the sort of upmarket produce that used to be the sole preserve of M&S.

That's its problem: a history that says it must be everywhere and be all things to everyone. The result is a chain that is neither fish nor fowl, hidebound by tradition, unable to tackle Waitrose or Zara head-on.

It should be no surprise that in announcing yesterday's half-year results, Mr Bolland drew attention to the performance of food. Sales in food were up 2.5 per cent, but non-food (mainly clothing) were down 1.5 per cent, marking the ninth quarter in a row they've fallen.

The weakness with M&S's broad sweep is that its head must also be a generalist. But to find someone who is equipped to smash both Mark Price at Waitrose in food, and Amancio Ortega and his successor, Pablo Isla, in clothes at Zara, while also taking on Natalie Massenet's Net-a-Porter online, is well-nigh impossible.

All the rag trade stars I've ever met have been people immersed in the manufacture, display and selling of clothes. Sir Philip Green, for example, can tell the fabric of a shirt or the cut of a suit at a glance and price them in an instant.

I doubt, though, that Sir Philip would regard himself as qualified to flog a salmon dinner for two, complete with pudding and wine, for a tenner. Yet that's what Mr Bolland is expected to do, and much more.

Mr Bolland has now got Belinda Earl, responsible for the turnaround of Debenhams and latterly at Jaeger, to help him. Her first, critically acclaimed autumn/winter womenswear collection was unveiled in the summer and is on sale now.

M&S has thrown everything at making it fly off the rails, splashing out on adverts with Tracey Emin, Helen Mirren and other female celebrities, in a campaign shot by Annie Leibovitz.

Only three weeks of sales of the new range were counted in these latest results. According to Mr Bolland, Ms Earl's efforts have been "well received by customers and there are early signs of improvement".

He has to hope so. As do M&S's hard-pressed investors. Mr Bolland says he's leading M&S on a journey. So far, it's been a voyage of disappointment. He's had nine quarters of declining sales. In football parlance, it's all building up nicely for the tenth.

If Mr Bolland is not to be remembered as someone who travelled well rather than arrived, he has to achieve some better numbers. There is talk in the City of potential suitors waiting in the wings for M&S. It would certainly help the management's task if the company were to be taken private, away from the unforgiving gaze of stock market analysts.

Then they could get on and modernise at will, close the under-performing stores, shake up the ones that remain, and not be so mired by legacy.

The trouble is, it would still require a chief executive who can sell both food and clothing well. That, as Mr Bolland has found out, is an incredibly difficult task.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?