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One size (does not) fit all

Hannah Barnsley, research executive at Mustard, reflects on the year’s retail figures and the possible reasons behind the disappointing results seen by some of the bigger department stores.

This week saw M&S release a statement stating its retail chief Laura Wade-Grey won’t be returning after two years in the role. M&S' retail chief wasn’t the first to leave its head office this year and last month we saw the store change its advertising and digital creative agency for the first time in 16 years. I couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of shake ups going on at the top of the ladder.

For anyone who pays particular attention to the company, these two changes in short succession shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. As the below graph from The Telegraph shows, this July saw a massive drop in both retail (again not a shock) and food sales for the megastore; which meant something had to change...again! 

The Guardian show M&S figure drops

M&S weren't the only ones who saw large drops in retail trade figures this year and this made me spot a forming pattern; many fashion retailers had taken significant tumbles over recent years. 

The chief executive of Debenhams put its fashion sales decline down to people spending "more money on experiences, which include eating out and holidays" and although I agree with him to some extent, I can't help but think he is missing a point. 

Shopping, for many people, is an experience in itself and it got me questioning why big retailers aren’t tapping into this. I, for one, prefer shopping in places that have a much better, relaxed and enjoyable customer experience. Take the likes of Topshop. Although I fear I am clutching at straws when it comes to still being considered its target market (we all try and cling onto our youth in some way don't we?) Topshop provides me with an experience that is easy, pleasant and something a little different.

There is always music (in some cases live DJ’s) to keep me entertained while I shop; finding what I want is easy as there isn't too much crammed into one space and the place is always tidy. However, where Topshop proves it really does understand the importance of customer experience is by more and more of its stores adding little extras to make our time there more enjoyable. Cafes, nail bars, hair salons and even places to customise your clothes pop up in branches around the country, encouraging customers to spend more time in store. You could even stretch to saying it is giving customers the opportunity to have a mini day out.

M&S retail falls

Compare that with the likes of Primark, the biggest faller in this year’s retail sales. You are met with no atmosphere, long queues, far too much choice and half the clothes displayed on the floor. Is it really any wonder I'm in and out of there in a flash?

Although customer experience is extremely important, it is also crucial to drive this experience through understanding your target audience and having a clear brand proposition. The main reason I enjoy going into the likes of Topshop, French Connection and John Lewis over Primark and Debenhams is because I know exactly what I'm going to get when I walk in; I know exactly who they are trying to target and what they are trying to sell me.

The recent administration and closure of BHS is another example. I remember the media asking customers for feedback when the first sign of trouble broke over two years ago. The answers were just confusing. Young shoppers said it was too old fashioned whilst older customers felt the clothing choices were too young. Some said they only went because it was cheap whilst others were saying the prices didn't match the poor quality. It sounded like customers had no clear vision of what exactly BHS stood for. 

We all know the fate of BHS but I can only speculate how well they monitored customer feelings, the strength of their brand and whether more focused consumer research would have made a difference. Could effective segmentation have helped BHS and would it still be trading if it had tailored its products and services to its customers? What are the brand trackers of many major retailers telling them? Are they asking the right questions to get to the route of any issues, or if they are, are they actually being listened to and actioned upon?

This is where the worry about M&S kicks in. I've seen them on many occasions over the last few years trying hard to attract a younger audience only to recently announce an intention to focus on "winning back Mrs M&S...aged 50 and over"! That might well be the winning strategy but if M&S keep changing their view of their target audience, how are we as customers meant to keep up? How are they going to put customers at the heart of everything if no one knows who their customers are?

What is clear is the one size fits all approach hasn’t worked well for other department stores. I hope M&S’ intention to target the woman who is a “working mum, maybe grandma, or maybe just about to retire" as their audience helps them finally turn things around.