Hard sell

We adore its undies and its chicken tikka masala - but will we fall in love with Marks & Spencer's shiny new 'lifestyle philosophy'? Next month it will throw open the doors to a designer superstore that dwarfs Ikea and urges shoppers to adopt a pick'n'mix approach to domestic bliss. Fiona Rattray reports
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The Independent Online

The nation expects a great deal from Marks & Spencer. So, when this month the company announced a set of dodgy Christmas sales figures (clothing and footwear down 3 per cent), it was headline news. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on where M&S was going wrong. Newspapers trotted out more pictures of David Beckham as evidence that its latest clothing ranges were skewwhiff; "the shops are boring," chirruped the style police; the company blamed the weather and the evening wear; "the food's good, but their cheese isn't worth buying," griped a colleague...

Deserve it or not, Marks & Spencer is one of the brands dearest to British hearts. We're not only customers, we're emotional stakeholders (this writer still remembers the stigma of not having M&S white socks at school in the Seventies, though it's doubtless been a long time since they sparked such brand envy). That is why, when the doors to the first Marks & Spencer Lifestore open in Gateshead next month, it's not just the shareholders who will be eager to see what's inside.

At 21,300 sq m (230,000 sq ft), the new Lifestore (that's furniture and homewares to you and me) store will dwarf the nearby Ikea (15,800 sq m, or 170,000 sq ft). But the Swedish company needn't be particularly alarmed. According to Luc Vandevelde, M&S chairman, theirs is not the market the company is after: "We're not going to do another Ikea - that already exists," he said when the Lifestore plans were announced last year.

The first store is the vanguard of M&S's attack on the mid-range of the lucrative and fast-growing homes market. The company wants not just an improvement on its current 2 per cent share (what Vandevelde terms a "niche" position) of the £20bn we currently spend, but domination. It faces stiff competition - Habitat has been doing it for years, but now retailers as diverse as Next, MFI, House of Fraser and Argos have all spotted the trend and have already staked their claim with the kind of contemporary ranges that the public is increasingly embracing. The question is how to stand out in such a crowded field.

Ikea's unique selling points are its stylish, realistic room sets - the sucker punch that makes it look easy - and the exhausting downstairs marketplace where you get the look. The Marks & Spencer Lifestore USP is a full-scale John Pawson-designed house in the middle of the shop, surrounded by two floors of what it hopes will be a far more pleasant retail experience.

Considering that the opening will be one of the biggest events in British retailing this year, Marks & Spencer is strangely publicity shy. For now, it doesn't want the so-called "dream team" behind the launch - headed by Selfridges' former saviour, Vittorio Radice (the shop-watchers have tagged him "Golden Bags", after the yellow carrier bag that helped put Selfridges back on the map) - to talk to the press. What it has done is issue a handsome promotional leaflet explaining the Lifestore concept and bigging-up the people involved.

As well as Radice and Pawson, it boasts Elle Decoration-founder, Soho House New York-designer and Isabella Rossellini-lookalike Ilse Crawford as stylist. Radice has also hired Tyler Brulé's company Winkreative to produce the new catalogue. The acclaimed Australian chef and cook-book author Bill Granger is conjuring up chic modern menus for the Lifestore Café. All of these are very cool, very big - if unlikely names - for fuddy-duddy old M&S to be able to drop. But they're not what the customers will be buying.

The Lifestore concept is to break out of the department-store model and arrange the products in more generally themed areas. These have headings such as "relax", "celebrate" and "renew", which in the brochure are accompanied by some seriously poncy lifestyle-speak, apparently inspired by "Love is..." posters. "Celebrate is... scrapping the guest list and making your invite 'open house'", "Escape is... hopping from Valencia to western Cyprus for a pre-summer glow...". (Like you do.) The idea is that you'll wander between these pick'n'mix environments, and end up with a non "matchy" (very naff) eclectic look (very cool) for your home. Which does sound nice, but might be a bit irritating if you've only popped in for a tablecloth.

Radice says he wants us to buy furniture and household goods the way we increasingly buy clothes - on impulse. "You should be able to say, 'I like it, I'll buy it and then get something new when I feel like it'," he told a seminar audience at the chic homes expo 100% Design last September. Which is fine if you're buying candlesticks, but an expensive habit when applied to wardrobes. (And just how closely, you wonder, can the Maserati-driving, Prada-suit wearing Radice and his team identify with M&S's core customer?)

Rachel Loos, the editor of Elle Decoration, thinks the concept sounds promising: "Grouping products in thematic zones is new and interesting and rather fun. And John Pawson's house is a masterstroke - it adds a sexy new element to the shopping experience." Certainly, having a building by Britain's maestro of minimalism will make it a must-see for discerning shoppers, and should place the Lifestore on the ever-growing Gateshead architectural tourist map (the Baltic gallery and Stirling prize-winning Millennium Bridge are soon to be followed by Norman Foster's The Sage music centre). But not everyone is convinced. Some (admittedly) London-based commentators have struggled with the choice of unglamorous-sounding Gateshead as the location from which to launch a furniture retail revolution. And one style magazine probably alienated a few Northern readers recently with the observation that it was "quite a new destination for the design cognoscenti".

The Habitat founder and Conran Shop supremo Sir Terence Conran thinks they might have a point. "I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to start in 'bling-bling land'," he laughs, adding that he does think that Tyneside is a "fantastic, energetic place", and that Newcastle-Gateshead "was rightly shocked not to get City of Culture" last year (when it was beaten by Liverpool). Despite the fact that M&S's plans reflect "the new taste welling up in the nation", he is still not sure if "Mr and Mrs Average" are quite ready for this.

In fact, Marks & Spencer is neither being as brave nor as stupid as the critics make out. Anyone who lives in the region or who's visited recently will be aware that massive out-of-town stores are de rigeur there. Newcastle and Gateshead (the two sit nose to nose with only the river Tyne between them) are also enjoying something of a property boom, with smart new developments jostling for views on the waterfront. Plus, Marks & Spencer's roots are in the North: Michael Marks was a Leeds market-stall holder before his and Tom Spencer's Manchester-based partnership began in 1894. The London flagship store didn't open until 1930. In 1986, Marks & Spencer opened its first edge-of-town shop - and launched its first furniture and homewares range - here, at Gateshead's Metro Centre (which, to judge from its website, offering both Dutch and Norwegian translations, is a far more cosmopolitan proposition than Southerners realise). Besides, Sir Terence believes that the team will use the Gateshead opening as an opportunity to tweak the Lifestore brand, prior to the London opening of its second store at Kingston upon Thames in the summer.

Sir Terence is a "huge admirer" of Vittorio Radice, who he calls "a seductively engaging character", but he doesn't underestimate his task: "It was relatively easy at Selfridges, because he was being very clever at selecting brands that work well together." And Sheridan Coakley, owner of the ultra-chic manufacturer and furniture store SCP - one of the brands Radice brought in to up the glamour quota at Selfridges - agrees: "What Marks & Spencer is trying to do is a very difficult thing - a huge potential market has opened up and it's been very late in realising it."

Even with Radice's charisma and impressive credentials (recent internet rumours have linked him with the chief exec- utive's job at Gucci), the question remains whether having fallen so far behind the competition (the company's recent clothing sales might have been bad, but the home figures were worse - down 4 per cent in the seven weeks to 10 January), in terms of style, and reputation, can it ever catch up? More than that, can it ever be cool?

In September 2003, Vittorio Radice complained: "There is very little on offer for real people, to the masses, in terms of accessible, well-designed products." And, standing in Marks & Spencer's flagship Marble Arch store last Saturday afternoon, it was crystal clear what he meant. The kindest thing you could say about the M&S Home department is that it could have been a department store anywhere. Bland, not very well-made furniture, lots and lots of stuff - bath mats, duvet covers and crockery. Amid the Regency-style bedsteads and clumpy sofas there were a few beacons of modern style: for example, the Tacoma storage cabinet, handcrafted in Italy in trendy zebrano veneer, wouldn't look out of place in a loft. Shame about the plastic-looking "plywood edge" on the Tacoma dining table, though. And there is no handsome B&B Italia-style chrome and leather sofa like Next has.

Hopefully, the new Lifestore products will be an improvement on these. So far, all M&S has shown is a few interior shots in its brochure, none of which looks likely to set the world of design alight. Sheridan Coakley, for one, thinks these items look "generic". The word is that with less than a year since Radice's arrival at M&S in March, and the store's opening to the public on 25 February, he and buyer Sally Bendelow (ex-Habitat and Heal's) have had to source all the products from around the world - in other words, go shopping for existing designs - in order to have anything to sell. Still, their combined eye for style, and experience (prior to Selfridges, Radice was the buyer, then managing director, at Habitat) will help.

According to the experts, it's unlikely that M&S, even if it had wanted to, would have been able to manufacture much from scratch, though long-term that's what many people would like to see. Otherwise, says Coakley, "It's wasting an opportunity." Good designers, he claims, would love to have the chance to see their products produced in the kinds of quantities Marks & Spencer deals in. Rachel Loos agrees: "I would like it to do more than just hoover-up generic products made in the Far East. It would be great if the company were to invest in good democratic design. It has the opportunity to be a huge force in the promotion of products that are original but inexpensive, and give its customers access to exciting new design."

The doors to the new Lifestore may be firmly shut at present, but if you look closely in Marks & Spencer's Marble Arch branch you will find a few indications of what to expect. As well as the signs "Renew" (by the bath towels), "Rest" (bedding), "Relax" (cushions), "Escape" (luggage), a tantalising few Lifestore products have already made it onto the shelves. The Lifestore toaster packaging features electric plugs and giant pieces of toast, but is still a big improvement on the old stuff (although the toasters themselves don't win any prizes for design). Some existing products - such as wine glasses - have been repackaged to fit in with the new. A dramatic display of red, black and white accessories (including an unusual glass vase and some enormous Portuguese ceramics) looked like the shape of things to come; the super-sexy soft leather luggage seems reasonably priced (£140 for a medium holdall) and is, I suspect, the kind of thing that even the Lifestore dream team wouldn't mind being seen dead with.

If it gets it right, says Loos, consumers will have no problem embracing the brand, and her magazine (and no doubt others) will feature its products. "We are not high-street snobs," she says. "If it sells interesting, beautiful objects at accessible prices, then our readers will shop there. They would be mad not to. If it's successful, it will galvanise the high street," she adds, before warning, "however, if the Gateshead store fails, I expect M&S as a home brand to fade away." Sir Terence Conran is cautious: "I don't think it will be a runaway financial success; they will have to work at it. But it's terribly important for the future of design and retailing in this country that it is a success. I hope Radice stays with it." Marks & Spencer badly needs a hit - it's been a long time since cheap cashmere sweaters and prawn sandwiches wowed the punters. Roll on February, then. The nation expects...