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What’s wrong with Marks & Spencer?

Three years into the latest chief executive’s reign, Marks & Spencer has once again reported poor Christmas trading figures, reigniting the debate about the decline of this great British institution.

Marks & Spencer, M&S, Marks, Marks & Sparks, St Michael’s – call it what you will, this retailer has anchored our high streets for much of its 129 year history inspiring deep loyalty in its customers despite not always delivering on its brand promises. The residents of our small Sussex town, for example, flock to M&S despite universally believing that we have been fobbed off  with a “second tier” M&S which is much inferior to the larger, smarter stores which grace the bigger towns around us. (Can that be true?)

And when M&S reports falling profits, we all have something to say about it. But why does it matter?

For one thing, M&S would be a huge loss to high streets and shopping centres everywhere, particularly now when so many are struggling. Often an anchor tenant and always with a huge footprint, a M&S store guarantees footfall for neighbouring shops and gives a town a badge of quality.

And as the Sunday Times pointed out this weekend, M&S’s top investors are the fund managers who run billions of pounds on behalf of pensioners. Another very good reason for the retailer to succeed.

M&S also has at least tried to address the needs of the older population. Whilst much of its womenswear aimed at older women is rather frumpy, its Footglove comfortable shoe range is definitely a step in the right direction. The staff training and good customer service means that M&S provides an enjoyable retail experience for older customers. And of course the food is great, if expensive.

So here’s a thought. Rather than chasing the younger market, why doesn’t M&S celebrate its core customers, the 50+ ? But not the “pensioners” of old. Today’s older people are smart, style conscious and choosy.  They don’t want “old lady” clothes although they do want fashion that reflects changing body shapes. Shoes need to be comfortable but they should also be stylish. And some consistency would not go amiss also.  The Per Una Range started well but seems to have gone off the boil. What’s with the matching necklaces? It’s bad enough in a small town M&S that there is a limited choice of tops but we don’t all want to go around sporting the same jewellery as well…!

It’s very easy to get into a rant about M&S. It feels like a store which belongs to us and as such should reflect how our society is changing.  Perhaps Plan A should mean “Age”.