M&S puts faith in fashion novice from Halfords and retail veteran – The Guardian

The latest Marks & Spencer advert closes on a Thelma & Louise style montage as two glamorous women disappear into the sunset in their open-topped sports car.

The image is designed to encapsulate M&S’s new motto “spend it well” – a clarion call for Britons to buy better knickers or wine because “life’s too short” not to. But, as we all know, Thelma & Louise ends with the trapped duo driving off a cliff so it’s a powerful metaphor for investors worried about M&S’s ability to dig itself out of a hole.

The cavalry arrived last week is the shape of retail veteran Archie Norman, who is to be its new chairman, and rising star Jill McDonald, poached from car parts and bike retailer Halfords, to oversee a clothing business which – despite its long-running problems – clings on to the title of being the UK’s biggest. The appointments complete a changing of the management guard at the retailer, which began a year ago when Steve Rowe succeeded Marc Bolland as chief executive.

Veteran retail analyst Tony Shiret said Norman was the best candidate for a tough job given the challenges facing legacy retailers like M&S, who are saddled with too many stores in the internet age. “Archie is fantastic, but I’m not sure even he’s has got the magic sauce to turnaround UK in-store retail,” said Shiret. “The problems are still the problems. M&S has got to give people a reason to to buy its clothing again and that’s a complex issue.”

High street clothing chains are struggling as Britons prioritise spending cash on eating out or holidays rather than on updating their wardrobe each season. Also, after a relatively benign period, consumers are starting to feel the pinch as the weakness of sterling since the Brexit vote pushes up living costs. The internet is not going away either as shoppers reach for their smartphones rather than spend the day browsing in their local shops – a trend underlined by Next, which last week revealed that store sales had tumbled 8.1% over the past three months as purchases were transferred to its Directory home shopping business.

During the six-year tenure of M&S’s current chairman Robert Swannell a lot has changed behind the scenes. He worked with Bolland on an expensive overhaul of the warehousing and IT system that is the backbone of stores, and also launched a new website that promises to be key to its future success. But analysts say he failed to tackle the thorny issue of the retailer’s clothing arm, which has been losing ground to rivals including Next, Zara and Primark for most of the decade.

This is reflected in the performance of M&S’s shares. When Swannell joined they were changing hands for 370p and on Friday they closed at 375p, after gaining 18p on the back of Norman’s appointment. The former investment banker inherited a business the delivered profits £780m in 2011 but is handing over one expected to make just shy of £600m when it delivers its annual results later this month.

Insiders say Norman and Rowe have established a rapport and that the 63-year-old City grandee would not have taken the job if he did not have confidence in his chief executive, who began his retail career aged 15 as a Saturday boy at M&S’s Croydon store in south London. Norman, who is feted for turnarounds including at Asda and ITV, is said to beaware of the challenges M&S faces as it grapples with a 130-year high street legacy that includes more than 300 clothing stores and a food business that is showing early signs of losing momentum.

“Archie Norman is an excellent choice because he understands retail and quite frankly the company has drifted under Swannell,” said one former M&S director. “I think history will say the Swannell years were a time when the company went backwards rather than forwards.”

M&S’s food halls have prospered as Britons’ eating habits increasingly favour the convenience of its ready meals and treats. But selling clothing has only got harder, which makes the appointment of a fashion novice like McDonald – who has never worked in fashion retail – a surprising one. After a series of false dawns, some analysts are surprised by the risk implied by entrusting control of the important division to an executive with more experience of burgers and bikes after spending nearly a decade at McDonald’s before joining Halfords.

“I was gobsmacked,” said another former M&S director of the decision to hire McDonald. “When I saw it, I thought ‘you are kidding me right’? It’s still the biggest clothing retailer in the UK, just about, so needs someone who understands clothing to do that job.”

But the executive said: “I really hope it works because a strong M&S makes for a strong high street and as a competitor I want them to succeed. Other sectors like coffee and tech are taking our customers but if M&S can reignite people’s interest in clothing then we will succeed as well because the whole market will grow.”

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