Marks & Spencer may have once looked on the ropes but it has bounced back with its strongest festive period for years.
The 138-year-old chain had its best ever Christmas on food and claimed its highest market share in full-price clothing since 2013 as shoppers emerging from last year’s lockdowns sought out the retailer.
On food, M&S has undoubtedly benefited from replacing Waitrose as Ocado’s retail partner. While its sales via Ocado were not included in Thursday’s trading update, the tie-up since September 2020 has raised the retailer’s profile with a younger audience and helped broaden its appeal.
That deal built on and underpinned an existing effort to draw in family shoppers by cutting prices on basics, offering larger pack sizes and modernising its food ranges with more vegan and organic products. Sales of milk and cheese, for example, rose 12% this Christmas on two years ago.
The food boss, Stuart Machin, has also stirred in a larger dose of fun by widening its use of in-house creations such as Percy Pig and Colin the Caterpillar, alongside new ideas such as snow globe gin and light-up shortbread biscuit tins, more than 1m of which were sold in December.
However, the real turnaround is on fashion. This Christmas, M&S partly benefited from a general surge in clothing sales, with fewer restrictions on socialising this year prompting a national wardrobe refresh.
M&S’s sales of bras surged by 13% and jeans by 12% as shoppers were able to try items in stores.
Concerns about the environmental impact of fast fashion have also sparked more interest in M&S, which is known for its better quality, more durable garments.
“There is a trend for longer-lasting products rather than disposable fashion continues to play to our strength,” Steve Rowe, the chief executive, said.
M&S has also helped itself by improving its online service, after fixing serious problems at its main warehouse and tightening up its fashion ranges to offer fewer and better products, so it is less reliant on discounting.
Online sales are up 50% on two years ago as M&S was able to capitalise on the general shift to ordering from home with slicker deliveries, including using stores to select and send products to customers for the first time this year.
A new strategy of selling other brands online, such as FatFace, White Stuff and Hobbs, as well as collaborating with interesting adjacent brands such as Ghost and Nobody’s Child, is also likely to have drawn more shoppers to the website.
Under the clothing and home boss Katie Bickerstaffe, the retailer has concentrated on getting its everyday basics, such as nightwear and knitwear, to look more stylishly accessible. Sales of those categories rose 25% and 5% respectively, despite M&S already being responsible for an enormous chunk of jumper sales each Christmas.
It has also broadened its appeal by, for example, shifting the focus of its children’s clothing to affordable kit that is not just for special occasions, and introducing the successful Goodmove brand of exercise gear. Launched only two years ago, Goodmove has become M&S biggest own label, selling 1.6m items annually.
“While clothing and home has formerly been M&S’s main handicap, it has now seemingly turned a corner in its overhaul,” said Pippa Stephens, a retail analyst at GlobalData.
“As well as revamping its own-brand clothing ranges to be trendier and more inspiring, the incorporation of popular third-party brands like Nobody’s Child and Ghost has also helped it acquire new customers. These more appealing ranges will have allowed M&S to significantly reduce the proportion of products being discounted.”