Now that the battle for M& S is over, it’s fair to say that pretty much everything about it has come down to price - and not just how much Philip Green would have needed to stump up.
The tough competitive environment of grocery means that Stuart Rose will inevitably review the pricing proposition of M& S’s food business. If so, this could see the rollout of the Simply Food format halted, although it would not be advisable to axe it.
However, a ‘can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ mentality that threatens to drag M&S’s good food reputation down into this deal-driven, sales-promotional, horse-trading arena could be a mistake.
The average person does not go to M&S to do a proper weekly shop - people pop in for their favourite things that they know taste better there and because they trust they always will. They go there for party food, or to do a top up shop.
M&S food is considered as something special, interesting or trusted, bought as a treat or a gift. Recent advertising campaigns for the food ranges have concentrated on this indulgence factor to good effect.
People are less likely to visit M&S for an economy shop or bargain.
M&S has always protected the integrity of its food offer by remaining somewhat aloof. Its brand has not been devalued by entering the price war of the major supermarkets.
You rarely see ‘reduced to clear’ items in M&S, in part due to healthy consumer demand but also because the retailer strives to avoid the negative image it portrays. M&S food is rarely sold passed its best and consequently consumer trust remains high.
There is evidence to suggest that consumers are still prepared to pay for assured quality and choice.
This has long been M&S’s winning formula for food and one it should continue to build upon. It has been able to cater to everyone across the age and lifestage spectrum. Where else can you buy organic children’s food, sumptuous TV dinners, calorie-controlled ranges and traditional custard tarts all produced by one trusted brand? That’s not to mention its dominance of the lunchtime trade.
A customer who walks into M&S’s food hall is met with a proliferation of appealing brands and choice - an experience notably lacking in some areas of the clothes business, such as womenswear, where the
store layout feels tired and outdated. Indeed, the stylish treatment of the Autograph area only serves to reinforce the outdated look of other parts of the store. Perhaps no wonder so many are voting with their feet and taking their custom elsewhere.
With its food, M&S has managed to balance good, old-fashioned retailing principles with consumer awareness and innovation. Each dish still feels bespoke, yet the retailer has embraced trends and given consumers what they want such as organic baby food or low carb alternatives.
To stay one step ahead, M&S should be aiming higher, not downgrading. The indulgent experience of its food is a concept that should be informing the rest of the business more in future.
For example, why can’t you taste more of the food you buy in M&S, like you can in specialist delis? M&S still provides a more obvious springboard into the deli experience than some of the main supermarkets reconfiguring their food halls with Olde Worlde deli style. It could broaden the appeal of this gourmet experience and apply it to a broader market as Britain’s love affair with food and cooking continues to grow and more of us consider ourselves budding connoisseurs.
So far, in food, M&S has remained strong. But it should not feel invulnerable. Its clothing business is testament to this.
If M&S is not careful its food offer could go the way of the rest of the business unless it invests more, not less, in NPD, quality and design. Food has not been known as the heartland of M&S’s business for nothing.