Marks & Spencer tries on clothes by mail order

Marks & Spencer is to expand its home shopping operation with the introduction of clothing catalogues from spring next year. The expansion is the latest in a series of moves by UK retailers and mail-order companies to expand their services as consumers show increasing interest in shopping from home.

The company will start regional trials featuring select ranges of adult clothing next year. It has developed a successful business delivering home furnishings, flowers, hampers and wine direct to customers' homes. Last year the business recorded total sales of pounds 85m.

M&S said it was expanding the service in response to customer demands. "There are some customers who like to have the option of purchasing goods from home as well as visiting the stores," a spokeswoman said.

The group already sells business clothing from a catalogue and started a regional trial of school clothing last year. This will be expanded to a national campaign later this year.

It is not clear which region will be targeted for the adult clothing trial. M&S has also not said if there will be any delivery charge. However, the goods will be the same ranges as those available in the stores. The company said the catalogue would enable customers who shopped at smaller stores to gain access to a wider product selection.

M&S already has an order-taking and warehouse facility in Warrington which will handle the orders. The company will also recruit extra staff for the mail order operation though it declined to say how many.

City analysts welcomed the move, adding that it was no surprise. Tony Shiret at BZW said: "It's a good move and will give M&S the chance to access customers in a different way as well as offering them a wider range."

However, there are potential dangers. It is possible that catalogue sales will cannibalise sales from M&S stores. Analysts said the retailer would have to be careful to avoid bad debts.

But M&S has had a charge card for years and now has 5 million members. It has also been running a successful financial services operation offering personal loans, pensions and a range of insurance products.

M&S's expansion of its home shopping interests is the latest in a flurry of announcements which foreshadow the dramatic growth of catalogue shopping. Next's home shopping catalogue, Next Directory, has proved a phenomenal success. And last year the Burton group made its first moves into the sector with the acquisitions of Innovations and Racing Green.

The method of selling goods to customers direct is growing at the expense of the old-fashioned "Big Book" catalogues where agents sell goods on a company's behalf in return for a discount.

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