Comment: Will new-look M&S flagship make its mark?
Marks and Spencer opened its Cheshire Oaks store yesterday
While much of the recent focus has been on the challenges faced by Marks & Spencer - from falling profits and poor clothing sales to a possible takeover bid - it's easy to forget the affection people have for the retailer. If the taxi drivers of Chester are anything to go by, we are a nation of armchair analysts who have ideas on how to improve the British retail stalwart - or at least tell it what it's gotten wrong of late.
The retailer yesterday (29 August) opened its "flagship of the North-West" - a 151,000 square foot store at Cheshire Oaks near Liverpool, which chief executive Marc Bolland believes brings together the vision he had for the retailer when he first took on the role in November 2010.
Back then, Bolland said, the stores were difficult to shop and the sub-brands lacked differentiation.
The new store is the retailer's first "Concept 11" store to be built from scratch, and Bolland showed journalists and analysts on Monday night how it has overcome these issues.
Indeed, the store should silence critics who said M&S's store layouts were confusing, since it now features clear and comprehensive navigation and clearly defined brand areas.
"This store shows, for the first time, the story we've been telling," said Bolland, who emphasised it is only the start of the journey, with incremental improvements to come as the retailer rolls the "Concept 11" design out across its estate.
The store also brings technology to the fore, with in-store wi-fi, staff equipped with iPads, and 12 'Browse and Order' screens.
Multi-channel and e-commerce director Laura Wade-Gery hopes the moves will encourage customers to browse the full product range while in-store, catching them while in a "shopping mood".
Plan A - the group's sustainability programme - is also central to the design, with Bolland noting the store is the group's greenest.
"We call it a 'sustainable learning store' as around 60% of the eco features in Cheshire Oaks will become standard spec for M&S stores," he said.
These features include a 100% Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified glulam roof, which is a type of engineered softwood timber. It also uses hemp and lime wall panels, and is 30% more energy efficient than its other stores, with 70% of heating for the store coming from a biomass boiler plant and heat reclamation.
Women's wear department
While Plan A is central to Marks & Spencer's ethos, it's not what drives the sale of dresses.
Women's wear is the department that has come under the heaviest fire in recent months, as the company has struggled with stock issues, a highly promotional market, low consumer confidence and a lack of focus in its offer, which have all hurt its performance.
The 30,000 square foot women's wear section at the new at Cheshire Oaks store received a mixed response, with Shore Capital analyst Clive Black saying the different sub-brands "benefit in merchandising and authority from the space available in this outlet".
However, Investec analyst Bethany Hocking said the women's wear space was "less impressive", describing it as "impersonal".
Yet for all of the issues faced by M&S, the falling sales and the speculation about its future ownership, there remains a huge amount of public affection for the brand.
Hundreds of people were waiting outside the store for its opening yesterday, despite there being an M&S Outlet less than a mile away, and another full-range store in central Chester, some 7.2 miles away.
As for my taxi driver - his girlfriend rang while he was taking me back to Chester station. Her verdict - she loved it, and despite his protestations, she was planning to take him back there today.
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