FROM THE GRAPEVINE: SEPTEMBER 2019
Originally published in London Wine Fair's Grapevine: 190919
By Richard Siddle
Have I seen the new M&S? No. Should I have?
Admittedly it's not a question you get asked every week. In fact you've probably not been asked about, never mind interested in the arrival of a new Marks & Spencer store for at least 10 years or more. Unless you are hungry driving up the M6 looking for which service station to stop at.
Exactly. So what's exciting about this 'new' M&S?
Well, the opening of M&S's second new concept store in Clapham Junction has got the chattering classes of Battersea and SW11 all in a flap. Particularly the news of an all-singing, all-dancing dedicated food store, including an in-store “glitter ball” pizza oven, “wine optics” and a live DJ (for the opening weekend). It's had the well-heeled of so-called Nappy Valley dashing down Northcote Road to take a look. The new store, dubbed 'SW11', follows the unveiling of M&S's first new fresh food store in Hempstead Valley in Kent earlier in the summer, but is even more of a vision of the “magic” that M&S will serve up under new food managing director, Stuart Machin.
So what's so special about it?
For a start it's a store dedicated to fresh food and wine with all the in-store theatre you could want. Out have gone the drab aisles of clothes you used to have to walk through to get to the ready meals. In fact, many of the ready meals have made way for larger fixtures of fresh fruit and vegetables and, rather than have all your meals ready made, you can now pick up all the ingredients nicely packed, Hello Fresh style, for you to put together at home. One of the headline fixtures, known as InFarm, is a first for the UK high street - an urban farm - which uses new technology to allow herbs and plants to be grown in-store in specially designed vertical displays. It's part of a trial with a German supplier who will visit the store twice a week to harvest and plant new seedlings.
And the wine?
This is a store prepared to put wine on the front foot. Rather than tuck the wine aisle away at the back or end of a customer's shopping visit, here wine is centre stage, literally in the middle of the store. One of its calling cards is you can now “go to M&S and have a drink” thanks to the self-pouring wine tasting optics it has installed. Being so bold as to make wine your central fixture also shows M&S is completely in tune with its regular customers. It knows they come in their droves to pick up their weekly, or daily ready meals, so has been prepared to push them to the back of the store, forcing people to walk through the fresh fixtures and wine section first. It also has an extended chiller unit for wine not normally seen in a major grocer.
So is M&S getting its mojo back?
It's a little early to say that, but it would be good news for the grocery and high street retail sectors if it does. For decades M&S ruled the waves, not in market share or square foot of sales, but in innovation and ideas, changing the way we eat, bringing convenience and premium ready meals to the masses. It was a retail chain where, famously, you did not go to buy brands, but to buy M&S brands. Or as its advertising slogan, first introduced 15 years ago, said: “This is not just food....this is M&S Food.” That famous advertising slogan has been brought back this year, for the first time in 12 years, with a series of new TV adverts as part of the chain's re-invention of its food and grocery offer. It's also pushing its revived food offer online and on social media with a regular series of day time TV-style cooking shows, What's New at M&S, featuring TV celebs, including Amanda Holden and Paddy McGuinness and members of the M&S food development team.
Sounds like some new people have got some fresh ideas?
It's very much part of a new 'transformation' strategy that chief executive Steve Rowe put in place in November 2017 which has seen the business recruit a number of leading figures to its food and grocery team over the last year. George Wright, a former Tesco executive, has joined in a new role as commercial director for trading and supply chain, whilst April Preston has been poached back to M&S from Harrods where she has been responsible for transforming its Food Hall, as its new product development director. It has also invested in £750m for a 50% share in Ocado to become its first online delivery partner and to help accelerate the expansion of its food halls.
Enough to make the other grocers sit up and listen?
They will certainly all be making a trip to Clapham Junction this week. Apart from perhaps Aldi, for it was all set to step in and buy up M&S's prized location, smack opposite Waitrose, and on the main commuter thoroughfare from Clapham Junction. But M&S had second thoughts about selling up, and instead decided to rip everything out and start afresh with this mecca for food and wine lovers. A statement of intent in itself, but also a confidence boost for the other mainstream grocers that they have brands customers will return and get excited about, if they do things that are worth getting excited about in the first place.