Outlook: On your Marks

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The Independent Online
THIS TIME last year Marks & Spencer wouldn't have known a PR campaign from a chicken tikka masala. According to the former chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, the press was there to be at best tolerated but preferably ignored. Now, having discovered the art of publicity-seeking due to reduced circumstances, the old girl just can't stop herself. She is raising her skirts all over the place.

A couple of weeks ago we had the launch of the autumn clothing collection. Yesterday saw the unveiling of the new store design, the latest in a series of attempts to talk up the group's prospects. An overhaul was certainly needed. Too many of Marks' stores had started to look like something out of the former Eastern bloc, with faded lino and endless metal racking of discounted tat.

The new look is brighter, fresher and, hang on a minute, almost modern. The company even sent some of its executives to America to look at how retailers do it there. Odd that this wasn't thought of before, since it already owns Brooks Brothers, but this shows you how narrow the M&S thinking has historically been.

From now on we will be seeing newfangled "People Greeters" at store entrances, equipped with electronic headsets and two-way radios. There will also be waiting areas in the changing rooms, where bored boyfriends can eat sweets and read magazines while their other halves try things on.

It is all sensible stuff. But a new store design will not kickstart a recovery and it is questionable whether the company is receiving best advice in continually talking up its prospects via the press in this way. We were even told that sales of the new "Autumn Collection" were showing "encouraging signs" yesterday, just a few days after it went on sale. A look at the M&S share price over the past year shows a series of upwards movements as hopes of a recovery mount followed by sharp dips whenever the company reports any trading figures. For the 50,000 bargain-hunting new shareholders who have joined the register in the past year, this is proving a recurring disappointment.

Product quality and price are the issues that should be top of the M&S hit list as the threat grows from e-commerce and rivals like the rapidly growing Matalan and the Wal-Mart backed Asda. M&S also still has to tackle the thorny issue of whether to accept credit cards or remain wedded to its own ChargeCard. So while it is good to talk, it might be safer to stay silent until there are some solid results to back the promise of recovery.