Lessons in sales strategy from M&S
How the retailer bounced back after the recession - and how you could too.
M&S is undoubtedly one of the most beloved fixtures of UK
high streets, but it took a hard hit during the recession, and
cheaper competitors often won out in the sales stakes. This week,
though, it's set to be the 'star performer' of the big retailers as
it announces its trading updates, according to yesterday's
Sunday Times. The City expects a 3.7% like-for-like
increase in clothes sales and a 2.5% rise in food sales, which will
nudge it ahead of the performance of Tesco, Sainsbury's, et al.
But sales boosts don't just happen, particularly when you're not
the cheapest retailer on the block. They take masses of
strategising and careful implementation behind the scenes.
M&S's celeb-heavy advertising over the last year has no doubt
helped, but there are plenty of other techniques its employed that
you can copy, to give yourself a chance at a similar lift.
1. Know your customer better than they know themselves
You have to listen to your customer - that's a given. Trouble
is, customers don't always tell you what they want - actually, a
lot of the time they don't know they want something until you give
it to them. Such is the case with M&S's lifting and
shape-shifting underwear for men. Following the success of its
Bodymax vests, which are designed to spread middle-aged men's
gussets more evenly (the male equivalent of squeeze-in lingerie and
push-up bras), M&S is launching pants for men that promise to
lift bums by up to a fifth and others that, er, frontally
enhance by up to 38%.
This isn't due to demand - in 2008 M&S said underwear
complaints were at an all-time low. Rather, the retailer spotted a
new niche, a product opportunity that customers wouldn't think up
themselves or would be too embarrassed to ask for, but that the
business intuited would be wanted. And right M&S was, for there
are already waiting lists for the new Bodymax products, due out on
Key lesson: Look at what's happening in other
markets to see if an idea can be carried over to yours (in this
case, the ideas behind products that had proved really popular with
women were brought to the middle-aged male market). Don't just give
the customer what they want - try to figure out what could help
them even more than what they're asking for, then deliver it to
them to exceed their expectations. To pull this off, you need to
know your customer really well - so heaps of ongoing conversation
with customers and extensive market research are musts. Get advice on market research.
2. Create easy-win twists on existing products, then market
M&S's recently-launched barbecue-ready food range and twist
on stir-fry ingredients (selling sauces, prepared ingredients and
noodles/rice as a 1-2-3-4 combo buy) have sold really well. But
M&S didn't re-invent the wheel there - it just made a few
tweaks to existing products and marketed them cleverly.
Key lesson: Look at your existing products and see
if you can make small adjustments to make them suitable for
specific occasions that justify a different type of marketing (in
this case, branding them as 'barbecue-ready' with a slap of
marinade on them, rather than selling just a lump of meat and a
bottle of marinade at different ends of the store). Go for
convenience - shoppers are generally a time-poor bunch who want you
to make life as easy for them as possible.
3. Don't be afraid to change your business model
Last November, M&S began selling branded products (made by
other companies) for the first time in its 125 year history. Sure,
doing so meant M&S abandoned one of the hallmarks of the way it
had been doing business for more than a century. But did this
impact the customer in any negative way? No - in fact, it made
shoppers' lives easier. (Think about it: most people would prefer
Heinz tomato ketchup to M&S ketchup - giving them that option
rather than making them traipse to another shop is a
And it made M&S's life easier too - reselling a product
that's been produced and quality-checked by an esteemed brand is
much less hassle than inventing, developing, manufacturing,
branding and marketing your own new product. It's a quick win. In
fact, this new revenue-stream has been one of the main contributing
factors to the pick-up in sales revenue.
Key lesson: Don't bull-headedly carry on working
the way you always have just for the sake of it, and don't cling to
traditions that have no intrinsic value for the customer. Business
models can and should be adaptable things, flexible enough to be
updated as and when the time is needed. If you spot a new revenue
stream, and it benefits you and your customer, embrace it. A word
of caution though: trial your new revenue-maker before investing
heavily. M&S haven't got other brands all over the place - they
started with small samples to test the water first.
4. Make customers feel good about buying from you
Customers are becoming more and more savvy about and seduced by
the ethical policies of where they shop. That's not to say they
shun unethical retailers - we're not there yet. But if the price
difference is negligible, most would choose an
ethical/organic/fairtrade version of a product over a less ethical
one. Basically, customers like feeling good about themselves when
they buy something. M&S has recognised and realised this over
the last few years to great effect. Its fairtrade ambitions and
ethics are a big selling point, and one that outgoing chairman and
former CEO Stuart Rose worked hard to cultivate during his
leadership of the M&S empire.
M&S has also cleverly aligned itself with charitable causes.
It's teamed up with Oxfam to offer £5 M&S vouchers to anyone
who donates M&S clothes to the charity (no matter how old they
are) and it publicised a similar voucher-for-donations
exchange on Wardrobe Clearout Day.
Key lesson: You don't have to go all the way with
fairtrade and business ethics to generate more sales. But a little
goes a long way. Sponsor a local charity, give a small percentage
of sales of a product line to charity, or start stocking some
fairtrade products. That feelgood buzz encourages customers to
spend with you, knowing some of their money is going to a good
5. Get the basics right
M&S has always been really good at having nicely laid-out
stores, friendly staff and a really easy-going returns policy. It's
known for quality. Its website works as you'd expect it to and is
easy to browse. This is elemental stuff - which makes it even more
important. Slip up on any of these basics, and customers just won't
Key lesson: Clever sales strategies count for
nothing if you're not getting the basics right. Make sure you're in
ship-shape and making customers happy, then start getting
innovative with more advanced sales ideas.
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