Dazed and confused by modern life

The more M&S tries to be Selfridges, Habitat or Ikea, the less we can remember why we went to them in the first place
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The Independent Online

Marks & Spencer's latest disappointing sales figures prove one thing - sensible, middle aged and middle class is no longer remotely desirable. You only have to look at the contortions Saga magazine gets itself into to realise that 70 is the new 50, and we 50-year-olds think of ourselves as 35 and a bit.

A new Emap magazine has just grabbed my attention at the newsagents, entitled Defying Age. It features Dr Miriam Stoppard air-brushed out of all recognition on the cover with Meg Ryan-style tousled hair and headlines like "Sex into the seventies and beyond". No one wants to grow old gracefully.

As long as I can cram my backside into a size 14 piece of designer wear, I will never consider myself middle aged. I can shop online, at fashionable designer outlets, and at supermarkets, but I will never admit to shopping for clothes at dear old Marks and Sparks: it reeks of giving up. And if I want plain basics, then canny Asda as well as Tesco have rushed in and undercut M&S with well-cut jeans for under £10 and packs of basic underwear in pure cotton for £5.

How has this happened? We baby boomers, Marks & Spencer's target market, are numerically the largest group of shoppers. And yet yesterday's disappointing results prove once more that the store that was once our best friend has become like a dreary relative that's just got to be tolerated when needs must.

For all M&S harp on about their new lifestyle store in Gateshead, masterminded by the hot shopping guru they stole from Selfridges, Vittorio Radice, you only have to pop into your nearest branch to see that any real changes in their retailing philosophy have not filtered down very far from the Baker Street nerve centre.

Their top-heavy management has so much in common with the BBC, too many chiefs and not enough indians. Even though they plan to shed 1,000 jobs at head office (saving up to £25 million) and move to new premises in Paddington, west London, it's too little too late. Sales in all areas, from home wares to clothing to food have slumped over the Christmas period.

From their ivory tower in Baker Street, the big cheeses at M&S don't seem to have realised a fundamental truth of modern life - shopping isn't something that most of us want to spend very long on and funnily enough the latest designer offerings from M&S aren't received with any huge enthusiasm by consumers with so many other things competing for their attention.

With increased time spent travelling to and from work as well as the pressures of combining family, leisure and a career, it's not surprising that ordering by e-mail has boomed and that food retailers have diversified into clothing, electronic goods, homewares and stuff for your pets.

You can combine buying groceries with so much else these days. The branch of Tesco in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, is a prime example. Last Thursday, in the space of 20 minutes, I bought excellent plain glass vases for less than £5 each, a DVD player for under £50, pistachio nuts, Italian salami, this season's must-eat designer fruit (blueberries), organic vegetables, fresh tuna (which the assistant packed in ice, unasked) and some plain cotton socks. That's the dilemma confronting Marks and Sparks - trying to navigate your way around their stores is time-consuming and confusing. There's just too much choice spread over too large an area.

Their inner-city stores are just as frustrating as those in towns like Harrogate or York. If you work in the City of London, you'll know that on one side of Moorgate M&S have a branch selling lunch as well as basic food supplies. On the other side of the street, they have another store selling a wide range of food and food to go (in the basement) along with a few home-wares. Fashion is on the ground floor, underwear on the first along with shoes and swimwear.

How long have you got to navigate this maze of retail opportunities? And if you did need a bra but have popped into the sandwich store, then you'll have to cross the road and go up the escalator where rack after rack of them could take up to 10 minutes to sort through. Sorry, M&S, life's just too short. In Moorgate alone, they are competing with Gap and other high street brands, so the chances of an impulse sweater or jeans purchase are low.

Just as the BBC have found, too much choice is not necessarily what we want. Yesterday's news that their audience reach among some groups has declined and ratings for their main channels have dropped was not unexpected. This is a direct result of promoting their new digital offerings, spreading the available consumers more thinly. Once you try to mimic everything that's out in the market place, you diminish your core brand.

What's so special about BBC2, if half of it has already come from somewhere else? Funnily enough, people don't sit grouped around one television set at home awaiting the latest BBC drama series with bated breath, just as the hot news that a striped sweater (like those retailing for over £120 by designers like Clements Ribeiro or Paul Smith) has arrived in limited numbers at some branches of M & S for under £30 is not going to get many of us setting out across town on a special trip to purchase it.

And the more that Marks and Sparks try to be Habitat, Ikea or Selfridges, the less we can remember why we went to them in the first place.

Hiring minimalist architect John Pawson to mastermind their dream home was another mistake. He means nothing for most shoppers outside architects.

Their underwear sales boomed when they teamed up with Agent Provocateur - but now they offer so many choices in so many styles that it is almost impossible to choose anything. And the people who have benefited the most are canny Agent Provocateur, because in the end we will always want to save up for the cachet of buying something special with a designer label as an occasional treat. Their own brand sales have soared, with Agent Provocateur shops opening all around the world, selling just expensive underwear, not blueberries, corn on the cob, DVD players or light bulbs.

Vittorio Radice has said in interviews that he wants to rid M & S of their dreary green and beige colour scheme. But why? Surely the challenge would have been to work with it and make it desirable once more. Creating a shop where you only buy homeware is bound to fail, because it can never offer the prices or choice of Ikea and can only mimic the stylishness of Tom Dixon's work at Habitat in a limited way.

If I want to make a major purchase like a new sofa, I read a couple of design magazines and then go on the manufacturer's websites to find a stockist. So do most other style-conscious consumers. I fail to see where M&S fit into this equation. If they want a slice of the booming homeware market, then it has be part of one-stop shopping, not a separate experience. So, until they go back to basics, and take a few lessons from Miriam Stoppard and not John Pawson, I'd say M&S are destined for imminent retirement.