Exclusive: M&S runs short of Leading Ladies stock just two weeks after launch

Chief executive Bolland faces embarrassment as critics accuse retailer of overhyping
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The Independent Online

Marks & Spencer may have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on its latest marketing campaign, hiring Oscar winner Dame Helen Mirren and artist Tracey Emin among others.

But just two weeks after the launch of the Britain's Leading Ladies campaign, some key lines have already sold out and others are only available in a handful of sizes on the retailer's website.

Four postcards with a host of models and celebrities are on display by store entrances, and customers are encouraged to order the items online, with web codes supplied alongside each garment.

However, analysing items on one postcard this week, The Independent found that about 75 per cent of the clothes had sold out in at least one size. The lack of stock so early on in the campaign could prove embarrassing for the group's under-pressure chief executive, Marc Bolland. Last year, he vowed to buy more stock after customers were left disappointed because buyers had failed to order enough knitwear used in its posters.

Mr Bolland also said earlier this year that the website is the new flagship store for the brand, offering services such as click and collect and next-day delivery.

However, as an example, supermodel and singer Karen Elson's outfit of a coat, jumper and treggings saw the coat unavailable in size 6 and 8, the jumper sold out in size 6, 8, and 10, and the treggings out in sizes 8, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24.

Honor Westnedge, a senior retail analyst at Verdict Research, said: "It sounds as though they've underestimated stock levels, and I think they need to avoid customer disappointment by pushing people to the website if the stock isn't available. They've gone in all guns blazing with this really high-profile campaign that they've invested lots of money in promoting it. But M&S is not Topshop or Zara, and is new to fast fashion and that quick supply chain.

"The strength of their competitors' supply chains is one of M&S's biggest weaknesses."

The independent retail analyst, Nick Bubb, agreed: "It is a classic mistake. You overhype something and disappoint people. However, at least it's got people out looking in stores and if people are there, then they are more likely to buy something."

Last year, M&S bosses admitted they had underbought, and stocked 50 per cent more of key lines this summer to meet demand for the make-or-break autumn/winter collection, which has so far received a positive reaction for its style and quality.

The company also insisted that more stock would be added to the website on some lines over the next few months. However, a jumper worn by Dame Helen and a jacket sported by Olympic boxer Nicola Adams has now completely sold out, although the website suggests that customers may have either input the wrong code or the item was out of stock.

Ms Westnedge said: "When a customer types in a code from a promotional postcard and it says the code could be wrong, it will leave customers frustrated and disappointed.

"That's where rivals are really strong, and a friendly casual message would come up saying how popular the item had been and suggesting alternatives in an attempt to keep the customer."

An M&S spokeswoman said: "Our customers have responded very positively to the campaign, and the products featured have been extremely popular.

"Some of the high fashion lines have sold through very quickly – much to the delight of the customers who bought them first.

"Customers are now eagerly anticipating the next phase of the collection, which will land online and in stores in October."