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.
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 October 15.
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.
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.
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 no-brainer.)
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.
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 place.
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 come back.
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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