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Analysis: Should Marks & Spencer try to be "fashionable"?

Lauretta Roberts
11 July 2016

Ask pretty much anyone with a passing interest in Marks & Spencer’s clothing performance (analyst, journalist, customer, non-customer) and they’ll have a strong opinion on what it’s doing wrong and how it should be fixed. For the most part the over-riding feeling is that M&S should stick to the basics, concentrate on its middle-aged and older customer and stop trying to be fashionable or trendy (and as for those celebrity collabs, forget it…).

However new research from consumer data expert Starcount suggests that this widely held belief is very much wide of the mark. Fashion, trends and collaborations are exactly what M&S should be doing if it wants to improve its performance in fashion, which got off to a dismal start in the first quarter of this financial year with sales dropping 8.9% on a like-for-like basis (to be fair there were factors outside of the retailer’s control to contend with like dreadful weather, an overall decline in the fashion market and Brexit jitters but it was nonetheless a worse drop than expected).

Starcount asserts that M&S is “failing to engage new fashion consumers because it is turning its strategies towards the discount high street shopper, when appealing also to trendy fashion insiders through targeted brand collaborations could help it significantly penetrate the UK’s women’s fashion audience.” Now there’s interesting, perhaps those collborations with the likes of designer Michael van der Ham and style icon Alexa Chung, that some had dismissed as marketing exercises, could be a way forward?

"The findings from Starcount data analysis have debunked the idea that M&S should be focusing less on trends and more on discount prices – on the contrary, it suggests that fashion insiders and trendsetters are the very consumers M&S needs to attract in order to improve market share. Our data shows that M&S is most popular among ‘Shopping Realists’, who are less interested in trends. But in order to reverse its recent decline in popularity, M&S needs to be focusing on also attracting the more on-trend consumer types,” says Starcount chief data scientist Clive Humby (yes, that is the Clive Humby who with his wife Edwina Dunn founded Dunnhumby, the company behind the Tesco Clubcard among other loyalty schemes).

Clive Humby Starcount

Starcount's Clive Humby: M&S should focus on trendsetters and fashion insiders

Starcount has been analysing M&S’s social media following and has found that from October 2015 to February 2016, around 36% of the new Twitter followers M&S managed to attract were from within what Starcount categorises as “women’s fashion consumer segments”. However, by May, this figure had dropped to only 15%.

M&S is most popular among the consumer group Starcount calls the “Shopping Realists” - sensible shoppers, keen on high street department stores and supermarkets, demonstrating, through the brands they follow, a practical, reserved, and realistic attitude to fashion. Within this segment, which accounts for 12.8% of the women’s fashion market, M&S has a 46% penetration rate.

How the M&S customer base breaks down, according to Starcount

  • - 46% Shopping Realists
  • - 11.6% Fashion Insiders
  • - 11.4% Luxury Fashion Aspirers
  • - 8.3% Deal-Driven Homemakers
  • - 6.0% Investment-Piece Buyers
  • - 4.2% Cultured Trendsetters
  • - 3.9% Glamorous Party Girls
  • - 3.5% Young Mainstream Fans
  • - 2.4% Affordable High Street Shoppers
  • - 2.7% Preppy Teens

The listed consumer types are Starcount’s segmentation of women’s fashion consumers in the UK, based on unique social media data analysis.

So, the retailer is already doing pretty well serving the kind of customer that many people think it should be targeting, so by Starcount’s logic, real growth opportunities lie in areas which have bigger market share and in which M&S currently has very little market penetration, such as “Fashion Insiders”. But there are some signs of improvement here.

Although its overall fashion followers have been in decline, M&S has recently been making ground among the Fashion Insiders. These, according to Starcount, are people who take fashion “extremely seriously”, showing a distinct love for magazines that showcase the latest trends in high fashion. In May, of M&S's new followers, 19% were Fashion Insiders versus a usual uptake of between 8% and 10% each month over the past six months.

Marks & Spencer Alexa Chung

Marks & Spencer's recent Archive by Alexa collection

The rise in Fashion Insiders came after heavy promotion, in April, of M&S’s Alexa Chung range. Starcount places Alexa Chung as the 7th most important influencer for Fashion Insiders and advises more collaborations in this vein. Other names that appear in the top 10 influencers for this segment include fashion editor Hilary Alexander (who has already collaborated with M&S), Stella McCartney, Mary Portas (who produced a line for rival House of Fraser), Henry Holland (currently collaborating with Debenhams) or Victoria Beckham (now there’s a thought…).

But while the Fashion Insiders are important, it is a very specific group, so to really reverse that scary decline in sales there are two key groups the retailer should be targeting, namely the “Investment-Piece Buyers” and “Cultured Trendsetters”. Between them these two segments account for over a quarter of women's fashion consumers (far more than M&S’s core “Shopping Realists” who account for 12.8%).

M&S currently has very little support among these consumer groups, which are made up of people who favour the more “on-trend” and higher-end fashion brands, says Starcount. Within these segments, M&S has a 4.2% and 6.0% penetration rate, respectively, compared with the 13.4% and 13.8% of the total fashion market that these segments represent, says Starcount.

In a bid to reach the “Investment-Piece” consumers, the top five key influencers are, according to Starcount, Alexa Chung, Millie Mackintosh, Alexandra Felstead, Cara Delevingne, and Lucy Watson.

Of course as mentioned M&S has already collaborated with Chung (though they might find her a bit harder to pin down in the future as she has just revealed, somewhat inevitably, that she is launching her own label targeting just those consumers M&S would do well to attract), which did have a positive effect on the brand’s following with Investment-Piece Buyers (and to give it credit the retailer has introduced more investment, seasonless pieces in its latest pre-Fall and Autumn collections).

Marks & Spencer

M&S latest collection does feature more investment pieces

“The introduction of the Alexa Chung range did see a slight increase in Investment-Piece Buyers as a percentage of new followers for M&S, accounting for 6% in April and 9% in May, versus an average of 4% for the six months prior. Engaging the other four influencers could help boost M&S’s popularity in this segment,” Starcount says.

Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham: could she be M&S ultimate collaborator?

For Cultured Trendsetters the key influencers the retailer should target are TV presenters Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby (though their close association with may rule them out) and one Victoria Beckham. Beckham has yet to do a high street collaboration and her credibility among Fashion Insiders and Cultured Trendsetters could just be the shot in the arm M&S needs right now. And this surely has to be the one collaboration that those die-hard, M&S shouldn’t do fashion exponents, would like to see as well?

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