The M&S flagship at Marble Arch and Selfridges are neighbours on Oxford Street. I can remember when going from one to the other was an object lesson in good and bad retailing. One store didn’t just represent the leading edge thinking of UK retailing but was at the top of the industry globally. That good and bad remains as stark, but the two companies have swapped places.
M&S has lost its way badly. Much of what made it really special has been allowed to erode and today, has all but disappeared. Food remains a good business, a leading innovator with dynamic ranging. However, management aspires to be the family supermarket it actually has never been. The (in my opinion ill-judged) deal with Ocado will add loads of product, most of which is of markedly lower quality and which in any case most stores do not have the space to accommodate. Clothing lacks style, isn’t sure who it is aimed at and finding any natural fibres in garments is increasingly difficult. Cutting costs has translated to a progressive decline in fabric and general product quality.
Selfridges is the polar opposite. One or two steps inside the door and you can feel the buzz. There is a constant energy around the store. Footfall these days is many times that of M&S Marble Arch. Of course, the nature of the store attracts lots of “window shoppers” but nevertheless, the numbers translate to vastly superior sales densities. And Selfridges never rests on its laurels. The store has a constant stream of new ideas, new offerings, new departments and brands, meaning it remains fresh and maintains that vibe of excitement.
In business copying is a waste of time. M&S cannot be Selfridges, any more than Debenhams, HoF and John Lewis further up the street can. Nevertheless, retailing is an industry where pretty much everyone’s trading secrets are there to see on the sales floor. You can learn from the winners and incorporate elements of their thinking into your own.
UK retailing has become far too corporate for this trading market. When pleasing shareholders is deemed to be more important than pleasing customers the alarm bells should start ringing. The M&S leadership team has vastly overrated the importance of lowering prices. Their customers are far more interested in relevant, quality product. The business will continue to decline for as long as they have these fundamental factors the wrong way around. And Selfridges goes from strength to strength, investing more and more into progressively improving its core.