It’s not the weather, it’s not the ads…

It’s not the weather, it’s not the ads…

Hello, and a belated Happy New Year! Once again, it’s time for the annual crop of ‘retailers post disappointing Christmas trading results’ headlines. Last year I looked at the correlation between results and ad campaigns – I see Campaign has just done a piece on that (well, they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). This year, however, I’m exploring the relationship between the results and the in-store experience…

It’s not the weather, it’s not the ads…

Good news! Christmas retail sales were up 5.3% overall, with some stores delivering 20-30% growth online. So, given this happy context, why did the poor performers do so badly?

Over at M&S (down 2.1%), the management continue to plough their own furrow, determinedly ignoring the huge amount of free customer research posted online below every article written about them. The fact that these comments are so consistent – the fabrics are ‘cheap & nasty’, the lack of ‘good wardrobe basics’, their under-stocking of key pieces, they’re too expensive, their obsession with celebrities in ads, the confused and cramped store layout and WTAF is Per Una? – clearly demonstrates that people still love the brand enough to a) have strong opinions about it and b) want them to fix it .

Their food (up 1.6%) continues to win plaudits and keep the lights on, but cracks are showing there, too. Too much packaged veg and ready meals, some (non M&S) ‘world food’ ingredients that would look more at home in Selfridges Food Hall, and more stock problems. Visit the food hall of my local M&S (a big, flagship store) late afternoon and half the fridges are already empty. This must be having a huge impact on profits – if the ‘buying supper on way home’ crowd regularly find empty shelves, they’ll soon go elsewhere (and not come back).

Talking of Selfridges, a recent visit left me very disappointed. Growing up in central London, it’s a store I have huge affection for – especially at Christmas – but the whole store is now just a collection of brand concessions, like a bazaar. From the chaotic looking kitchen department to the designer fashion floor, it’s hard to see what value the Selfridges brand actually adds. I certainly didn’t see any of the theatre or style that their founder built the legend on.

The High Street clothing stores are too pre-occupied with ‘fast fashion’ and pre-empting the seasons. The issue of ‘fast fashion’ is now too politically charged to be attractive to any customer with a conscience. (The real ‘cost’ of that £2 t-shirt was made abundantly clear last year). Pre-empting the seasons has always been more for the retailers convenience than the consumers – only fashion journalists want to wear next Summer’s skirt length in November, the rest of us dig out what we wore last year (and the year before that).

Why the obsession with filling the rails with next season’s stock when the current season is less than halfway through? Shoppers aren’t even thinking about a new winter coat (let alone want to try one on) when it’s 30 degrees outside, and don’t care about ‘spring florals’ when they’re Christmas shopping. And good luck finding beachwear outside of early summer. Retailers clearly believe nobody goes on holiday (or swims at their local pool) when there’s an R in the month.

The net result is the retailers don’t actually stock what we want to buy when we want to buy it, and then they blame the weather when it does exactly what it always does.

Of the supermarkets, Morrisons (down 5.6%) clearly wasn’t helped by a TV ad that made their food look like it came from Iceland (two terrible Christmas ads on the trot. Time for a new agency, methinks) and their perplexing inability to get themselves online until last week. And an instant fail on this, by the way, as they won’t let you check delivery to your postcode without first demanding your email address. But their main problem is that shopping in their stores is such a depressing, dated experience. It’s a shame, because the quality of their fresh food is generally really good.

And so John Lewis remains triumphant (up 6.9%). Much has been written about the contribution of their ads, but what they consistently deliver is a fantastic shopping experience both in-store & online. John Lewis excel at

  • Good, ‘old fashioned’ customer service*
  • Visual merchandising (they could certainly teach Selfridges a thing or two)
  • Excellent delivery (dresses arriving on hangars in proper garment bags, for example)
  • And of course, their Never Knowingly Undersold sales policy – a customer guarantee that really means something.

Offering free coffee & cake to Loyalty Card customers is a nice gesture and unlike the endless (unused) discount vouchers handed out by M&S, Boots and WH Smith, it succeeds in getting people into the store and builds a genuine sense of customer care. (Although they need to work on their cake selection. That lemon meringue tart is an abomination).

If some of this sounds simple, let me tell you that a recurring aspect of my consultancy work is helping brands really understand who their customers are and what they want. Listen to your customers, sell the stuff they want to buy – when they want to buy it – in a modern, attractive, well laid-out environment and look after them. And guess what? They’ll come back.

If you think you need any help with any of these areas, just give me a call.

* Recently, a member of staff flew past me as she rushed across the department. The supervisor quickly admonished her with a stern “We don’t run on the floor, Margaret”. A bit Grace Brothers maybe, but wonderful all the same…


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Sam Bridger is an interim executive specialising in marketing roles across all sectors.


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