UK: Analysis - Can George Save M&S?
The hottest news on the retail front last week was undoubtedly that one of the industry's favourite entrepreneurs, George Davies, is to work with M&S.
It is hoped that he will be able to breathe life back into the beleaguered retailers womenswear ranges. But can Davies pull it off?
Past imperfect - Autograph fails to rewrite M&S's future
Much has been written of M&S's previous attempts to revive its fortunes and to regain public interest. The 'Autograph' range certainly gave a fresh look to the stores, but these ranges were not aimed at the general M&S shopper.
The range may in fact have done more harm than good as many customers were confused by the designer price levels. Those interviewed didn't understand what the ranges were about - the label read M&S, the bags read M&S - but the prices were way out of their league.
Since many had already defected to Next, Dorothy Perkins, and Matalan, these ranges were not going to win them back.
Comments such as "well if this is the new M&S then it's way out of my price range" were common. The M&S reputation for value was also called into question at the end of the season when goods were being discounted by 75 per cent, leaving many customers believing that the prices were highly inflated in the first place.
Is George the answer?
When George Davies left Asda in November last year he was approached by many retailers - Mothercare, Storehouse and of course M&S.
Davies was often frustrated by Asda's bureaucracy. Those close to him reported that he didn't want to be involved with another large organisation where he wasn't able to exercise his passion for the product.
The key difference now is that the way he will work with M&S, by being able to manage his own team of designers and buyers, he will be able to concentrate on getting the product right without too much interference. One of his colleagues from Asda says of this new move: "If anyone can do it he will, the key difference is that he is working independently. At Asda he hated the bureaucracy, he wanted to get the ranges right, he's a product man."
When Davies first started working with Asda in the late 1980s he worked in a similar way: the George Davies Partnership, his own design and consultancy company, supplied product into Asda stores. It wasn't until 1996 that Asda bought the rights to the 'George' brand name.
Davies' new team will consist of key personnel from his days at Asda and Next who are highly experienced within the industry.
Questions have been raised about the quality of the product - "will he cheapen the range?" was a concern for a number of customers. However, although some of the products on sale in Asda may lack quality in the fabrics used, the actual production quality is high.
M&S is able to command a far higher retail price than Asda and this, coupled with huge volumes and the sourcing experience of Davies' team, should quash any doubts on their ability to get it right.
One of Davies' colleagues said: "He will translate the success of Asda into M&S. He knows how women like to shop and dress, he understands that when women shop they like to outfit build and this will be reflected in the way he presents the ranges in store. He will use the same overall concept that he used at Asda but will give great value."
One of the main reasons why this has the best chance of success is the general public's perception of Davies.
He is viewed as someone who is successful (even though not every project undertaken has gone to plan), many of the M&S shoppers interviewed remembered him as the man from Next, and some thought that he was still involved with Next and that this would have an influence on the ranges. Others linked him with great value ranges at Asda.
Much of the nation is sad to see the decline of what was the UK's favourite retailer. Previous attempts to save it have included major changes in store layout, introducing designer names (then keeping those names mostly anonymous once the ranges went on sale) and the introduction of new product categories.
However the mainstay of the business is womenswear - if M&S can get this right and get the customers back then other areas will follow.
It would be the greatest coup of all in Davies' career if he can pull this off. As one of his colleagues said: "He has landed the job he has aspired too. It's perfect for him, he will love the high profile that working for M&S will bring. I think he has everything going for him."
By Liz Bolt
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