Bloomberg News

M&S Falls Out of Fashion With Britain’s Big Spenders: Retail

October 26, 2011

Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- British grandmothers may still be buying underwear and sweaters at Marks & Spencer Group Plc. Their daughters are spending their money elsewhere.

The U.K.’s biggest clothing retailer controls 23 percent of the market for women aged 55 to 64, according to Verdict Research. That number drops to 12.1 percent for women a decade younger as they seek more fashionable frocks and workwear.

“Marks & Spencer dominates, but they face strengthening competition” for women in their 40s, Maureen Hinton, Verdict’s U.K. practice leader, said in an interview. “There is a gap in the market for affordable, inspirational and relevant fashions for the over 45-year market. Department stores and independent shops are coming out on top as the preferred place for shopping.”

Debenhams Plc, House of Fraser Ltd. and John Lewis Partnership Plc have all introduced lines to target that clientele. Retailers can’t afford to ignore the demographics -- women aged 45 to 54 are forecast to spend 11.1 billion pounds ($17.7 billion) this year, more than half of the total U.K. clothing expenditure, according to Verdict. The market will grow by another 28 percent in the next five years, it forecasts.

Retailers are fighting for shoppers as clothing sales fell 0.7 percent in September and consumer confidence dropped for a fourth month. Pressure on budgets may continue after inflation accelerated to 5.2 percent, matching highest reading on record.

Leader in Lingerie

London-based Marks & Spencer, the market leader in lingerie, has been seeking to turn around its clothing business after same-store sales stagnated in the last quarter and some customers complained that outlets are difficult to navigate and branding isn’t clear.

There is “room for improvement,” clothing director Kate Bostock said at the company’s annual general meeting in July. Marks’s overall share of the clothing market is 11.7 percent.

Marks & Spencer stock dropped 1 percent to 329 pence at the close of London trading, extending the decline to 8.8 percent since Marc Bolland took over as chief executive officer in May 2010. Debenhams, the U.K.’s second-largest department-store owner, is down 0.2 percent in that period. House of Fraser is owned by Highland Group Holdings Ltd. and John Lewis is owned by employees.

“We’ve seen a real renaissance in the big department stores creating own labels for this market,” said Lorna Hall, analyst at fashion forecaster WGSN. In the past, women over 45 “might have been shifted to concessionaires and specialist brands such as Alexon, which are perhaps identified now with a more mature customer.”

Banish Baggy Cardigans

Debenhams hired 66-year-old model Valerie Pain for an advertising campaign and trained 250 personal shoppers to help the 45-plus market tap into the latest trends.

“Gone are the days when hitting 50 meant you were relegated to baggy cardigans,” Debenhams spokesman Ed Watson said. “This isn’t mutton dressed as lamb, this is about taking trends and applying them to an older customer.”

The company’s average shopper is 44 and buys from both Designers at Debenhams, where a Jasper Conran double-breasted brown leather jacket costs 325 pounds, and the budget Red Herring range, with blouses for 32 pounds.

“Customers don’t want to be pigeonholed” with an age- specific range, Watson said. “It’s about style advice and bringing outfits together.”

House of Fraser introduced a concession by television personality Mary Portas, 51, in August to lure older shoppers at its Oxford Street store in London. The range includes a 150- pound multicolored shift dress, which sits beside a 129-pound Radley orange leather cross-body bag. M&S sells a “Per Una” leather cross body bag in chocolate for 45 pounds.

Hiding Upper Arms

The Portas range, which includes detached lace sleeves to cover upper arms as well as notebooks, plates and olives, performed “very well” in the first four weeks, House of Fraser Chief Executive Officer John King said in an interview. The third-largest U.K. department-store chain plans to roll out “pop-up” versions of the Mary Portas store to other outlets before Christmas and full versions next year.

John Lewis is also counting on designer collections to win over this age group including a lingerie range from Tracey Boyd with a focus on ‘50s glamour such as high-waist briefs, an Osman Yousefzada line and the EMME by Michael Lewis shoe range where patent court shoes sell for 270 pounds.

Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, is reformatting shops to give each brand its own manager, labeling, in-store presentation and ad campaign.

“We’re working really hard with our strategy on clothing and highlighting and segmenting our clothing brands so customers can really identify with our products and find our stores easier to shop,” Clare Wilkes, a spokeswoman for M&S, said.

Cosmetic Changes

The luxury Autograph line has a black glass table and grey mannequin alongside a silk animal-print top selling for 45 pounds. Per Una, a line for older women offering “Sixties Swing” striped tunics and “Love Your Curves” jeans, has whitewashed wooden wardrobes with jewelry displays and chandeliers.

“M&S did not touch the flooring, the ceiling, the lighting or the fixtures,” retail analyst Nick Bubb said. “The changes were quite cosmetic. We wouldn’t have thought M&S’s competitors in non-food will be quaking in their boots.”

Shopper Kim Muir, 53, said she isn’t planning on shifting gears anytime soon.

“I buy T-shirts, underwear and casual trousers for my husband at Marks & Spencer,” Muir said outside an M&S store at the Westfield mall in east London after spending 50 pounds on a manicure and Primark sweater. “But I don’t shop there for something special. I go to Debenhams and John Lewis for that.”

--Editors: Sara Marley, Paul Jarvis

To contact the reporter on this story: Sarah Shannon in London at sshannon4@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Celeste Perri at cperri@bloomberg.net.


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