Marks & Spencer is one of the last bastions of middle-class Britishness. Long before the department store gained a following for its Percy Pig sweets and canned gin and tonics, it was an institution as British as the royal family, tea and scones, and complaining about the weather.
The 134-year-old department store—the country’s biggest clothing retailer—has long been seen as a barometer for the health of the UK high street. And it’s not doing particularly well, having announced that it will close more than 100 stores by 2022. This is of course partly due to the shifting retail landscape and the rise of e-commerce, but the company’s chairman, Archie Norman, suggested last September that there’s an internal problem too: “M&S has been drifting and under-fulfilling its promise not for five, 10 but for 15 years.”
With its well-appointed food hall and racks of neutral, unassuming clothing, Marks & Spencer was always aspirational—but not in a modern, Instagrammable way. It trucked in old-fashioned class aspiration, functioning as a reliable litmus test for a certain kind of bourgeois gentility.
Especially in its high-quality food offerings, the store tapped into Britain’s obsession with class—carving out a market niche with prepared food and ingredients posh enough to be daily fare for the well-to-do (prawn mayonnaise sandwiches and pre-ripened imported peaches), and a splurge for the working class (vol-au-vents and Belgian truffles). I remember thinking to myself when I was younger that I’d know I was comfortable financially when I could go food shopping at M&S without checking the price on every item. Shopping there was a luxury, but a realistically obtainable one, a goal and a signal that you were well off.
Upstairs in the women’s clothing department, it was twin sets and boxy blouses that were conservative but not nun-territory, and vast swaths of basics—comfortable but unsexy cotton underwear, as well as socks and stockings in neutral colors. The store was a stop on countless back-to-school shopping trips, where kids stocked up on school uniform trousers and sensible lace-ups.
But in the last 20 years, society has changed. Shopping has changed. Class stratification hasn’t gone away in the UK, but (as last week’s royal wedding showed the world) the country has become more diverse, and new forms of social mobility have emerged. Meanwhile, as Norman pointed out, M&S has stagnated—failing to find a cure for its blandular fever when it comes it clothing.
By the time it realized it had a problem, it was too late.
Upstart online retailers like ASOS and Boohoo, with strong stylistic identities and the promise of prompt shipping, threaten the department store’s existence. People don’t want to look like the Queen’s long-lost sister anymore, and aren’t concerned about dressing like someone who comes from old money. Nor do they see the merit in paying double the price for a sweater that they could easily buy on an e-commerce site such as Amazon, which has staked out its place as a go-to for basics like socks, underwear, and other staples.
While its food offerings remain genuinely delicious and luxurious (I find that canned G&T perfect for a long train commute home after a hard day!), the chain has struggled both in food and in its core business, clothing.
It’s not so surprising. Walking into an M&S clothing section is a whiplash experience. On one side there are skirts your granny would love, and probably the exact same shirt you wore to your first job interview. On the other side are an attempt at “what kids wear these days,” with a smattering of guest designer items and celebrity “collaborations.”
M&S’s bosses have said they’re getting their shop in order, to become more modern, digital, and responsive. But the problem is, M&S’s brand has always been obtainable bourgeoisie. Society, thankfully, has progressed, and M&S can no longer lean on such outdated notions to prop it up. It should really ask itself, does it still have a place on our high streets, if it can’t progress with the rest of us?