In today’s retail market, staying ahead requires more than just keeping pace—it demands innovation, adaptability, and a keen understanding of consumer desires.

Nishi Mahajan, director of Third-Party Brands at M&S, shared insights into how the iconic British retailer is not just meeting, but exceeding expectations by thinking outside the box and delivering precisely what consumers want through third-party brand partnerships.

Under its ‘Never the Same Again’ agenda, M&S announced in 2020 that guest brands would be introduced online and in larger stores in a bid to broaden its appeal and grow online sales.

The secret behind M&S’s continued retail success

“It’s not about the number of brands we offer, but finding the right partners who complement and complete the core offer at M&S,” said Mahajan who explained that the heart of the retailer’s brand strategy is “curation.”

M&S’s vision to become the “most trusted retailer” all comes down to doing the right thing for its customers and its focus within its Clothing & Home category.

M&S’s decision to start taking on third-party brands followed a 75% sales hit on clothing during the coronavirus lockdown.

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She explained the rationale behind the retailer’s key opportunities for growth and its brand strategy.

“Through our brand partners, we’re able to grow relevance and build market share in key areas where we know brand credibility is of importance.”

An example Mahajan gave was in sportswear, where the Sports Edit on the business website features global brands Adidas and Sweaty Betty, added in 2023 which sit alongside M&S’s activewear brand, Goodmove.

Mahajan adds: “We know that through our brand platform, we’re driving new customers to shop with us, and our existing shoppers are coming back more frequently and spending more – with the majority of Brand baskets also containing an M&S product.”

M&S tapped eco-conscious womenswear Nobody’s Child as its first third-party clothing company in an attempt to “broaden appeal and help turbocharge online growth,” back in 2020.

In 2020 it added Albaray, Celtic & Co, Craghoppers, FatFace, Frugi, and Jones The Bootmaker to its roster. M&S expanded its portfolio to include footwear products by selling Hotter Shoes on its website.

2023 saw it add more footwear brands such as Sketchers, Crocs and Toms followed by Adidas and Sweaty Betty in the same year to grow in the sportswear market.

Through its third-party partners, the business can offer its consumers a broader product proposition from filling gaps in specialist categories like toys to elevating and diversifying its label product in categories popular with customers – like dresses.

“In doing so, our brand platform is driving new customers, frequency and increased spend, while ensuring that the majority of orders also contain a core M&S product in the customer’s basket,” said Mahajan.

The platform is now home to over 90 brand partners operating through several models that it has developed over the years.

Tailored partnership selection and driving business models

Despite growing rapidly from the beginning, Mahajan highlights that the brand platform is still in its infancy with lots to learn.

“We’re continuing to test, learn and invest in simplifying our infrastructure and inventory management,” she said.

M&S has learnt that there is no “one-size-fits-all approach” whilst on this journey to carefully selecting the right partners for its website.

The retailer provides a range of business models to its third-party partners, including consignment, wholesale, and the recently launched “dropship” capability. This allows for fulfilment from partner stock to reduce the volume of split shipments, resulting in cost savings and a flexible commercial model.

Mahajan said this gives the company room to continue protecting its customer experience of shopping at M&S – from click and collect to over 700 stores to its Sparks loyalty programme – “Sparks, has made us an increasingly attractive partner to third-party brands,” she adds.

The UK retailer is continuously finding ways to better its business including curating an independent team with the digital skillset to make “fast, informed decisions” to help it manage its brand partners and “get ahead of customer’s needs” described Mahajan.

Where does the future of M&S’s brand strategy lie?

By doing the right thing for its customers and producing quality products at the heart of the organisation, Mahajan said M&S is just at the beginning of what it can achieve.

She highlighted the retailer’s relentless focus on trusted value, accelerating its store rotation and renewal plans, doubling down on its supply chain programmes to improve availability, lower costs, reset data, and digital and technology strategy to “unlock benefits in future years.”

“We’ve entered 2024 clear-eyed on the near-term challenges but with a spring in our step; determined to deliver our objective of driving growth in market share in both businesses and to accelerate our transformation,” she said.