As I read the recent news stories about the declining sales at M&S, I found myself wondering if we all still really care that much? Of course M&S remains a treasured icon of British retail, but when stories about its stumbling first hit about 20 years ago now, it felt like real news that said something about Britain’s changing tastes. These days M&S really isn’t that sort of default shop where you can rely on decent taste and quality; if you want an OK top for work, say, you are just as likely to find it in Next or (more likely) Zara.
A journalist friend tells me some papers with younger readers are not carrying M&S stories any more for this very reason. And this leads me to ponder whether we should in fact be looking to different shop chains for that mix of soap-opera-ish success-and-failure cycles and socio-econimic bellwether-ism. If so, what would be the contenders? I’d suggest the following five:
Never mind that it’s Spanish. Once Mary Berry had worn it, it was clear that it above all else had a nose for comfortable suburban aspiration. And Zara Home is like what you wish M&S interiors were like.
Unglamorous yes, but rather unappreciated on the whole. Outdoes M&S for reliability, and doesn’t have those tent-like florals and washed-out colours that make you think you’re in the wrong place.
3 John Lewis and Waitrose
Yes, we would say that. But Waitrose is miles better than M&S Food, which has been trading on its reputation to shove out cheap rubbish for miles too long. And John Lewis does kindly mother-substitute staff better than anyone.
We could have said Boden, but we would have been deceiving ourselves. A big part of M&S success was always its competitive pricing, and unless or until IKEA goes into clothing, Primark does “competitive pricing” better than anyone. Lacks that sort of moral dimension M&S used to have, but then that’s had a lower profile recently anyway.
5 Chic Outlet Shopping Villages
One for the future, as so far there is only one in the UK, at Bicester. But does anywhere quite capture the determination to do “nice” and a bit “exclusive” for a bargain price quite like Bicester Village? The last time I went, I saw at least two women dressed and groomed almost exactly like Kate Middleton, which said it all.