Is the UK ready for the new M&S

We’ve all got used to Marks & Spencer talking about transformation, even in the days of Stuart Rose, who delivered profit but very little change in terms that we now understand it. Ten years later, after six years of Marc Bolland and nearly four of Steve Rowe, it is clear that real change may be afoot. Cynics, me included, may hear the crying of a wolf, but consider the numbers.

Laying off 10% of your workforce of 78,000, having already got rid of 950 head office managerial roles, is a significant drop in a labour-intensive industry like retail. M&S also announced in February before coronavirus hit that, after closing 17 stores at the beginning of 2019, it would close a further 110, reducing its estate to under 1000 stores. It has since said it will close further, underperforming stores, which now that coronavirus has affected every single one of its stores apart from food shops, could be quite a few.

The future is mainly on line

But savage reduction in store numbers starts to make sense when you see where the money is now going – on line and ambient food warehousing, home delivery and technology. This suggests the dawn of a large on line business supported by a small store network.

The question remains not so much whether CEO Steve Rowe and chairman Archie Norman will be able to transform the business so much as whether there is a demand for it. M&S customers are a funny lot; because they are sentimental about the brand, they will say very positive and negative things about it in the same sentence, which is not much help to the focus groups on which the company has over-relied for decades.

Irrational customers are no guide to the future

Customers also have an annoying habit of saying that they want something that they then don’t buy, and M&S has more than others suffered from this irrational behaviour. So the company really only has itself to fall back on. My own worry is that M&S is in the difficult middle market, which was always a bad place to be, but which is now an awful place to be. In short, the leadership team has the talent to get it done, but what is it?

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