A new look for its food halls is central to M& S’s hopes of restoring its fortunes. Ronan Hegarty checks out the Basingstoke trial

Basingstoke may seem an unlikely place for the start of the great Marks and Spencer recovery under Stuart Rose, but as far as the M&S management is concerned, it’s as good a place as any.
The M&S department store has not just undergone a redesign but something of a retailing revolution that if successful could see it become the blueprint for the rest of the group’s large mixed-use stores. From its comfortable café that is reminiscent of an upmarket high street coffee chop, to its boutique-style lingerie department and its plush changing rooms that are marked out by informal writing on the wall inviting customers to “try it on”, this is very modern retailing indeed.
Nowhere in the store is this more evident than in the redesigned food hall. With its understated and stylish black floor and cream-coloured fridges, the emphasis has been shifted from the fixtures to the products themselves, which have been spotlit to draw the shopper’s eye. Some standard chiller cabinets have also been used, but these, too, have been fitted with mirrors that reflect light from overhead spotlights directly on to the food. The new format is described by head of retail design Niall Trafford as having “the mind of a supermarket but soul of a deli”.
He adds: “The new look is about surrounding the customer with product, making it as easy as possible for them to see what they want and make the product as attractive as possible.”
In a recent survey for The Grocer by HI Europe, shoppers expressed a high regard for the quality of M&S food but felt that the offer was let down by lack of range and convenience. The new food halls, which will also include the M&S stores in Shoreham, Edgware Road in London, Dundrum and Blanchardstown, also aim to address the problem of convenience. Indeed, says Trafford, the whole concept behind the general overhaul of the store is to develop different destination shops within the store, thus creating more reason to shop. This applies equally to the food hall.
A dedicated food to go area offers a wide range of fresh and chilled products.
The centrepiece is an in-store bakery providing freshly baked and prepared baguettes that are sold daily between 11am and 3pm. There is also a dedicated checkout area.
There have been a number of new developments that Trafford believes help M&S to connect with the shopper both physically and emotionally. The aisles are wider and there are new-look trolleys that are taller than usual to match the height of the checkouts so customers put less strain on their backs when bending down to pick up shopping.
M&S has also gone all out for impulse shoppers with premium products such as wine, chocolates and seasonal lines taking the prime eye level shelves near the checkout.
Younger customers are also targeted with messages about ethical trading and quirky recipe ideas scrawled on large blackboards behind the tills, which will also take people’s minds off queues. Trafford says that although there is a lot of in-store theatre - water mist is, for instance, sprayed on the fresh produce - the overall effect is a much easier shopping experience. Now that sections of the store are better defined, shoppers can see exactly what they want, he adds.
John Talbot, a member of Trafford’s design team, reports that the food sales have been higher than expected in the first three weeks of trading, with food to go driving footfall and sales.
He is cautiously optimistic about the success of this new format. “You don’t just put something like this together and say that looks great, let’s roll it out across all our stores,” he says.
“At the same time, customer feedback has been fantastic and sales are up.”
The Basingstoke refit cost £7.9m, which included an extension adding around 12,000 sq ft to the size of the store. Talbot says that the other trial stores and any future conversions would be considerably cheaper. Indeed much of the equipment used in the store is already being used in traditional M&S food halls but has just been adapted to fit the new deli style.
The M&S executives were clearly pleased to see that shoppers of all ages seemed to be enjoying the experience. The food to go area was especially busy and the café was full.
But they will only be able assess the impact of the new format in spring after the Christmas shopping period, at which point they will decide if it should be expanded to more stores.
Even then, trying to turn around food sales that were 2.1% down like-for-like in the first half, is going to be a big task.