Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Marks & Spencer
When your husband tells you to go out and buy a new bathing suit, you can be quite sure that the acquisition is long overdue. With this imperative in mind, I decided to it was time to return to that “mother of all British institutions” – Marks and Spencer.
I hadn’t been in a store for ages. Neither had the British public were one to believe the headlines. “Is M&S in Terminal Decline?” has been asked so many times that one didn’t even want to be seen going into the morgue of mass marketing. It was embarrassing to be seen there. The stores looked lousy. The merchandise was boring beyond belief. Even the iconic underwear ( and by association the swimwear) was judged “not worth buying any more”.
But along came an ad campaign with a very beautiful middle-aged Twiggy to change all that. How did a model famous in the 1960s get customers back into Marks and Spencer? It’s a weird dynamic but a powerful one. Twiggy looks so great in the kind of clothes that most middle-aged women need to wear, that you are seduced into getting back into the store and having a look. I needed a swimsuit, I was past the bikinis on offer at Topshop and Zara and anyway, I wanted to look like Twiggy, heroine of my youth.
I chose to visit the M&S on Kensington High Street and not the main store on Oxford Street. First, I hate Oxford Street. It is the kind of street that makes you want to quit consumption all together. It is just too big, too crowded, too voracious and too crude for an enjoyable shopping experience. The same can be said for the Oxford Street Marks & Spencer. The M&S on Ken High Street has just enough stuff to keep me happy but not so much stuff that I am turned off.
The store in Kensington has been spruced up and looks better. Improved lighting insures that the merchandise looks more appealing. I’m still confused about where to find stuff but less so and the ladies underwear, I am happy to report, is back in fine form.
I found my ideal swimsuit quickly. Instead of setting me back £100 which is what an equivalent product would have cost me at Harrods, my lovely white one piece was a reasonable £35. It was made in Portugal from a sturdy fabric that should hold everything in the right place. I loved it and was in the mood to shell out for some beach accessories as well. But alas, the accessories were created with an over tanned Ivana Trump in mind and I gave them a pass. The fact that I tried on my new fab suit in a disorganised dressing room and had to wait a long time to pay for it, demonstrated that some things at Marks haven’t changed.
So would I recommend a return visit to this icon of British retailing. Yes, I certainly would for underwear (including socks and tights), jumpers/sweaters and food. In the underwear department, you can buy anything from good quality inexpensive utilitarian to great looking sexy stuff at modest prices. The food buyers have finally woken up to the fact that the middle classes have an aversion to additives and food miles and the jumpers/sweaters still beat anything on the high street for value and durability. Their washable wool can withstand the onslaught of even a housekeeper from the Philippines (and for those of you who have ever had someone from the Philippines do your laundry you know how miraculous this is). These sweaters make great affordable gifts.
For the rest of the merchandise, I’m still not convinced. The children’ department continues to look like an outpost of Disneyland. M&S take note – Eloise does not want Winnie the Pooh on her knickers. The shoes still can’t compete with the cutting edge cheapo shoe stores such as Office and for my money, the heralded Per Una and Autograph lines can’t hold a candle to what’s on offer at H&M, Zara and Topshop.
But with all that said, it’s nice to see a British institution getting back to the business of being a British institution. It seemed unnatural not to shop there. Too much has changed in this socially managed “paradise” of an island in the last eleven years and I, for one, look forward to the return of orderly queues, a rousing defense of free speech and buying my knickers at M&S.
Photo of Twiggy in M&S outfit from ad campaign taken from company's website