Executive director of general merchandise, Kate Bostock

Executive director of general merchandise, Kate Bostock

After Marks & Spencer admitted to being caught short in women's wear during the fourth-quarter, it has moved to bolster its design and merchandise teams as well as ramping up the amount of clothing it sources on a fast-fashion basis. M&S executive director of general merchandise, Kate Bostock, spoke to journalists about its clothing strategy yesterday (22 May) on the sidelines of the retailer's annual results.

Bostock said the retailer has hired Karen Peacock from Debenhams as a new head of design to focus on the company's international ranges.

The addition will give more resource and more direction to the "very stretched" design teams, says Bostock, while emphasising that the current team has been doing a "great job".

Design will be split into three areas from the current two, with a splitting of the core M&S woman brand and Per Una, the retailer's biggest brand.

Per Una requires a lot of attention, Bostock explains, adding that the heads of design on that brand have faced difficulties with its offices being 100 miles away.

"We've moved Per Una back into the business, so that will make life better and easier from that point of view," says Bostock.

With international expansion key to the retailer's growth, including plans to open 100 stores a year overseas, the changes will be seen in some product differences "but a lot of it will be about phasing correctly in some of the markets," Bostock explains, adding that shoppers are not seeing new ranges in the different markets where the retailer operates.

Instead, the challenge is to make sure the products are more appropriate: "It's obvious things like Dubai does not need coats in February and March."

The retailer has also promoted Sacha Berendji to GM merchandising director, following the departure of Andrew Skinner in March. Berendji is heading up a new work stream around merchandising, which is looking at a "core seasonal fast discipline", which is about managing stock levels around stock type, says Bostock.

Speed to market
Describing the company's stock strategy, she says the retailer is working so that core products never sell out, and seasonal merchandise is managed on a three month basis with slow and fast sourcing.

On fast-fashion, the speed to market varies, "sometimes it's three to four weeks, sometimes it's six to seven weeks, depending on the product, but the aim is four weeks".

The volume of products bought on a fast-fashion basis varies among its sub-brands. Less than 10% of its core women's wear is bought this way, rising to 25% at Autograph, with 60-70% at Per Una, and 100% at its Limited line.

"We're increasing open to buy all the time, and managing flexibility as best as possible," emphasises Bostock. "Fast lead times are not just about fashion, it's about getting after things that surprise us and getting out of things as well."

Bostock said the retailer is sourcing a lot of its fast fashion products out of Turkey, Morocco, Spain, a little bit from Portugal, and Egypt, a country she says is "increasingly doing a great job for us on fast track".

The retailer's ability to respond is improving as it does all of its dyeing "through the technical process," so it can change a white jacket to a blue one, with information going straight through to the dye house. This means, even in the Far East and India, it has been able to apply "more speed and flexibility," emphasises Bostock.

Speaking about the company's performance, which saw it record a 0.2% rise in clothing sales over the year, Bostock said it "hasn't been a difficult year." Describing "real celebrations in lingerie" and rising market shares in children's wear, she also admits a "mixed performance in women's wear", has been "a bit tough".

Women's wear issues arose after the retailer moved its good, better, best, needle a bit this time last year. "That cost us a bit; we didn't have enough good product, or our prices weren't keen enough in that category." Not surprisingly, this has now been adjusted.