Every Christmas, Steve Rowe, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, works as an ‘Elfer’ – short for elf helper – on the shop floor.
In the next few days he will go on a ‘magical mystery tour’ and turn up at a store without warning. ‘I like doing the packing, though sometimes colleagues don’t want me messing it up,’ he jokes.
‘Pretty much everyone from head office is an Elfer, they assign themselves to stores. Christmas is our moment, it is what retail is all about.’
Not just any boss: Rowe pictured at the M&S store in Westfield Stratford without a mask, outside of store opening hours
This festive season comes at the end of one of the strangest and most difficult years for retailers – and the new year will bring formidable challenges with Brexit.
I’m talking to a masked Rowe, 53, whilst walking the floors of the gleaming M&S flagship in the Westfield Centre in Stratford, east London.
He paces the store with the familiarity of a regular, greeting staff, many of whom he knows by name. Sheer enthusiasm for shops and for the art of retail exudes from every pore of his being.
When we stop at the Apothecary range of home diffusers and candles – think Jo Malone but a fraction of the price – he inquires with genuine interest which fragrance a colleague prefers in his house. ‘I like the Balance scent,’ Rowe says, though in the circumstances he could be forgiven for opting for something from the ‘Calm’ range.
Even before the pandemic, his job was challenging enough. M&S shares and profits had tanked and the company had been ejected from the FTSE 100 index.
He was in the thick of a drive to transform the business when the virus struck. He was shutting down dilapidated stores and opening new ones in better locations, along with improving the online operation.
Rowe has also made the fashion more stylish, including a new collaboration with Ghost while Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s (left) underwear range continues to be popular.
On the food side, M&S had signed a £750million joint venture to sell groceries through Ocado, which went live this autumn.
Marks and Spencer has adapted its lines for pandemic dressing, which means less formal work and partywear, more teddy coats, snuggly PJs and athleisure
How frustrating then to be whacked by a malign microbe, just as he believed the business was on the cusp of getting its mojo back, something that has eluded it for decades.
‘It was going to be phenomenal. I really thought we had turned a corner. As it was, we announced our first loss ever in the first half,’ he says, looking crestfallen.
He has, however, managed to shift almost all of a £1.8billion mountain of unsold clothing stock.
Some 7,000 jobs have gone, most of them through voluntary redundancy. ‘We have no plans to lose any more, though I can’t predict what will happen in the economy.’
He says that M&S does not plan to follow the big grocers and pay back the £80million of business rates relief it received during the pandemic. Unlike the supermarkets, he says, the business did not cash in during lockdown.
‘We haven’t paid back the business rate relief and we don’t intend to. We are really grateful for the Government help and we have used it in the right way to keep the balance sheet afloat.’
As for the Ocado partnership, he says: ‘Those who doubted it – many of them have changed their tune.’
The Sparks loyalty programme has been re-launched as a digital-first operation and there have been 2m sign-ups, taking the total to 9m, a major success in other words. M&S has pulled forward spring merchandise because winter investment pieces such as coats and boots are not selling in the pandemic.
There will be a new jeans campaign in February next year, pushing the good value and really rather stylish variety of women’s skinnies and straight-legs, along with a men’s range.
‘I had never owned a pair of M&S jeans until last year and what’s worse is I used to work in the trouser department,’ Rowe admits.
‘As a business, we are selling more relaxed clothes, soft tailoring, leggings and pyjama bottoms,’ he added.
‘The pandemic has accelerated the trend away from tailoring.
‘Dressing for work has changed and we have adapted to it.
Marks has updated its lines for pandemic dressing, which means less formal work and partywear, more teddy coats, snuggly PJs and athleisure.
Even the turkeys have been downsized because people are not having the usual big family gatherings with heaving tables of food. ‘We sell one in four turkeys in the UK and we have a record number of orders. But people are buying smaller birds so we have reduced our spec,’ he says.
In lingerie, there is socially distant bra-fitting in 64 stores. Ladies use a sterilised tape to measure themselves, then their statistics are put into an app which tells them their correct size.
Expert assistants then help them to select the right style. The service in Stratford is fully booked and sales have rocketed.
M&S has gone to huge lengths to make its stores Covid-safe, as Rowe pointed out to Boris Johnson – who says he was a former Saturday boy at the Marble Arch store – when he visited Stratford at the end of the first lockdown.
To help social distancing and reduce potential crowding problems 400 stores are open until midnight and 24 all night long.
There are 1,800 greeters each wielding digital apps so they can count the customers in and make sure the store does not become too packed. Another staff member checks people out when they leave.
Till positions have been changed so customers don’t have to get too close to one another in the queue. ‘Scan, pay, go’ where people can buy on their smartphone is in every store for food purchases up to £45, so that customers don’t need to go to the checkout and be in and out more quickly.
The fitting room has been closed and converted into a click and collect area, which accounts for around 16 per cent of sales.
It’s an impressive array of measures – but how will he cope with Brexit on top? ‘We are as prepared as we can possibly be,’ Rowe says.
‘We don’t think food bills for shoppers in Great Britain will go up,’ he says, ‘but any administrative burden that falls around Northern Ireland could result in extra costs for customers there. Some foods could cost more.
‘Now it is not about a trade deal. The detail of how we are going to move goods about needs to be finalised urgently. Surety of the situation is what we need.’
M&S opened a warehouse in Motherwell in Scotland in September to ship merchandise from Scotland to Northern Ireland specifically because of Brexit.
It has a digital tracker to keep tabs on food products that could serve as a prototype for a ‘trusted retailer’ system.
‘Goods are checked in the warehouse and digitally tracked so we can confirm that nothing went into the republic that shouldn’t have done,’ he says.
It has been a traumatic year for M&S, but it is battling to reinvent itself for a post-Brexit, post-Covid world. Every shopper in Britain is hoping 2021 will be the year that our best-loved, but deeply-troubled retailer, will finally bounce back.
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