They say it’s your birthday…

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M&S posts falling profits, falling sales and a sad attitude to its customer base with the end of in-store ordering.

Portfolio green shirtM&S is 125 this week. Well, happy birthday. If the firm keeps tanking at this rate, perhaps there won’t be many more of them. 

A company moves into dangerous territory when it deserts its core customer base, and M&S’s dismal Portfolio range, aimed at the over-40s, is a good example of how it’s losing the plot. 

When I reviewed the Portfolio range elsewhere on this site there was quite a response, along with some rage at the end of the firm’s in-store ordering policy, which discriminates against those without Internet access (mostly over 50 at a guess), and the reduction in the formerly generous refund period.

Co-incidentally, a Second Cherry reader had already written to the firm to express her dismay at the Portfolio range. Here’s what she had to say:

Dear Sir Stuart

Marks & Spencer Portfolio Fashion Range

I have never written to the chairman of a company before, but I have taken this unusual step because I felt I just had to express the huge disappointment and feeling of betrayal of your core customer base with your new, and much heralded, Portfolio range.

Having read about this range in the media last Autumn and wanting to believe the PR hype rather than the actual comments of women on some of the previewed range (which were almost 100% negative), I logged onto the M&S site this morning to hopefully order a ‘perfect’ capsule wardrobe. I have been waiting a long time for an M&S range that would ‘speak’ to me!

The hype was that M&S had apparently ‘identified a gap in the market’ for the forty five plus age customer – which begs the question as to why it took so long? This uninspiring and condescending range only proves that, whilst you may indeed have identified a gap in the market, you most certainly have not addressed the needs or aspirations of that market.

At 54, married to a hairdresser who has to be very conscious of the needs of all women and particularly, those of the more mature woman, I feel qualified to comment on behalf of many of your core customers.  I consider myself to be a young and still fashion-savvy 40/50’s something woman (size 12). I would assume myself to be firmly in your Portfolio range target customer base.

Portfolio outfitI certainly have always tried to shop at M&S. I say try because increasingly, so many of Marks & Spencer clothes seem to have been aimed at the twenty to thirties age range, with inappropriately short hemlines, too much tacky detail and dangerously revealing necklines! I am sorry but I am not yet ready for the Classic range (and doubt I ever will be). Similarly, Per Una, with its continual re-working of a now irrelevant ‘boho’ theme, is samey and frequently unwearable – unless, of course, you are considering a Romany lifestyle!. Strangely, I found the vibrancy and novelty of the recent Patricia Field collection quite exciting but had to console myself with buying just a gorgeous silk scarf, as the remainder of the collection was clearly aimed at the ‘celebrity obsessed’ generation with ‘body con’ design and an overtly sexual message and would not look good on anyone over 25.

So, I was really hoping, with Portfolio, for a new range of well-cut classic clothes – that is ‘classic’ as in Sophia Loren and Jaeger, not ‘classic’ as in Norah Batty and Littlewoods.

Portfolio topThe Portfolio range boasts of being ‘exclusive, luxurious and sophisticated’. I have to ask you, Sir Stuart, if you really think that a plastic handbag could ever be deemed exclusive, a short-sleeved stretchy viscose top or a 100% acrylic cardigan ever be considered luxurious or a hideous lime green linen belted ‘over-shirt’, sophisticated?.  And, surely, someone should have questioned the ‘wide legged, sleeveless, tie-belted 100% polyester jump suit’ before it was included in this collection.

Which brings me to the whole question of design. Personally, I think the overuse of tie belts in this range illustrates perfectly just how very wrong almost all of these clothes actually are.  If any modicum of thought had been given to the woman expected to wear these clothes, this style ‘feature’ would have been abandoned at the outset. Has no-one told your cutting edge, arrogant young designers that a ‘waist’ is something we older ladies can often only dream about! Few of us would ever favour the bunched up fat-look that is achieved with any kind of ‘tie waist’. Clothes for the more mature figure should skim and flatter, not draw attention to an area which has hormonally lost its way! Surely, the first step in designing a new range is to identify your market and then address their needs. Did anyone actually do this? Did you really ask your customers what they wanted and, more importantly, did you listen to their answers?

We fifty something’s may be past the first flush of youth (thank goodness!) and we may be more rounded and not have a perfect hourglass figure, but we are not ready for this cynically targeted range yet. If your focus group have approved all, or to my mind, any, of these clothes, then may I respectfully suggest you need to select a new group. I for one would be more than happy to take part – as would any of my friends who are equally frustrated at being ignored, undervalued and sidelined by the fashion industry. I have even conducted my own straw poll today and rung round a group of like-minded friends, all of whom reacted in exactly the same manner as I did this morning. One friend commented that the range was ‘awful’, one burst out laughing and a third commented that it was no wonder M& S’s profits were down.

In these very difficult, recessionary times, a well-researched range aimed at us baby boomers who, unlike our own mothers, do not go into perms and big cotton knickers at forty, is certainly well overdue. We do still have spending power and to be treated as sad, saggy old Bagpuss Women by M&S, our favourite shop, is frankly, humiliating.

We want quality fabrics, a flattering cut, gorgeous colours and sophisticated, chic design  – not A line skirts in viscose and jeans in ‘tencel’ thank you! Is that too much to ask of Marks & Spencer?

And finally, I wish M&S would take a lead and shun this obsession with celebrity culture which has been dominating (and arguably, ruining) our lives for a decade. Instead of paying vast sums to celebrities, why not invest in encouraging and training your fashion designers to actually think about designing for real customers. I might admire Marie Helvin’s youthful looks, but forgive me if I do not necessarily see her as some kind of ‘role model’ for my generation. Just because Twiggy looks good in your acid green mac, this will always say more about Twiggy (or the wonders of Photoshop) than your clothes! Please never, ever, under-estimate the intelligence of your customers.

I am not sure that writing to you in this way will achieve anything – but if one very small voice from your heartland in Berkshire can make any difference at all, I will feel it has been worth it.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and excuse my cynicism if I do not expect an answer!

Marks did reply, but our reader wasn’t particularly pleased with their answer, which she felt fobbed her off:

Thank you for writing to Sir Stuart. I am a member of his personal team and so replying on his behalf.
I was sorry to hear that you are disappointed with our Portfolio range and feel we have not addressed the needs of the market for this particular range. I can assure you that research has been carried out and we hoped that our customers would be pleased with the items of clothing on offer.
I can appreciate your comments concerning the design of the clothes with tie belts around the waist and also the type of fabrics used. I have passed these comments on to our buying department so that they are aware of your feedback. I’m sure they will give this their consideration as we always try to improve and make positive changes to the types of clothes we offer.
I have also noted your comments about how you feel we should take the lead and design clothes for ‘real’ customers rather than celebrities. This has been logged so that our marketing department is aware.
We always appreciate any customer feedback that enables us to improve our products and services:  I do not underestimate the importance of listening to and understanding our customers’ views. I hope that you can continue to enjoy shopping with us.
On behalf of Sir Stuart, many thanks for contacting us.
Yours sincerely

Not really good enough, she thought – what do you think?

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