Marks & Spencer is aiming to win back shoppers by making its stores look and feel more like a department store. The change comes as its rival John Lewis looks set to draw level with M&S sales this year.
In the 80 largest stores, M&S is dividing its main Collection range of womenswear into defined areas for single products including coats, dresses, denim and knitwear. There will also be casual, smart and tailoring departments. Each area, which in the 15 top stores will be divided into near-separate rooms, will include appropriate accessories such as belts, footwear and scarves as well as mannequins that help to suggest outfits.
The chief executive, Marc Bolland, who is under pressure to improve sales of women's clothing at the high street stalwart, said revamped fashions going into stores were "directionally right" and "on track" according to customers, staff and the press. He said: "What we see now is product coming out much better because it has got the environment it deserves."
The Dutchman, who joined M&S more than three years ago from the supermarket chain Morrisons, has overseen a revival in trading in the retailer's food department. But shareholders have suggested Bolland's job could be on the line if clothing sales do not show signs of improvement this season after two years of decline.
Bolland insisted: "Addressing womenswear is extremely important but autumn/winter is a first step. It is not make or break."
He said the new-look stores improved the "shopability". He added: "We are not turning into department stores, we are just departmentalising the shopping journey a bit more."
M&S's new stores were revealed as John Lewis is expected to reveal a 6% rise in half-year profits on Thursday. The department store group is on track to exceed its rival's UK sales for the first time.
Perhaps with the famous service of John Lewis in mind, the new look for M&S is accompanied by "Fashion Camp" retraining for all 10,000 staff working in womenswear to improve their knowledge about the chain's clothing. Staff are being urged to put aside other tasks to step on to tills if queues build up and to offer advice to shoppers.
In three large stores in the London area, including the Pantheon store on Oxford Street, M&S is also testing a more traditional way of selling footwear. The traditional shelves of shoes from which customers help themselves have been largely replaced by stylish displays and with staff on hand to produce the right size from a stockroom.
Analysts welcomed the changes but questioned the speed with which shoppers around the country would see a difference in their local stores. They also queried Bolland's reassurance that the new look would not add to costs.
"We think it will take a number of seasons before there is a marked improvement in both like-for-like sales and profits of womenswear and costs are likely to be more significant than expected at the start of the process a year ago," said Freddie George, an analyst at Cantor.
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