Fallen Giant 1

I have had a relationship with British clothing store Marks & Spencer for twenty years.  Every time I go to London, I visit M&S and buy underwear, socks, shirts and trousers — enough to last me until my next visit.  While I’ve occasionally bought a shirt or two from U.S. outlets like Target or Kohl’s and casual trousers from Sam’s Club, fully 80% of my wardrobe carries the M&S brand — and because in terms of its fit and endurance no other brand has come close to M&S, over the past twenty years, I’ve never worn underwear or socks from anywhere else,.

Nor have many Brits:

One in three British women buys their bras from M&S — 45 bras are sold every minute in-store — while two pairs of knickers fly through the tills each second, which equates to more than 60 million pairs a year.

And from memory, about 50% of British men in the 1990s bought their socks at M&S, simply because they were the very best you could buy, at any price.  With that kind of market share, how could they fail?

M&S also screwed up royally before 2000, by the way, by not accepting any credit cards other than their own charge card.  It was that, or cash.  I discovered this blithering idiocy the very first time I went to their flagship Oxford Street store, went to the cashier with about six hundred pounds’ worth of merchandise, only to have to leave most of it behind because they wouldn’t accept my Visa card and I only had a hundred-odd pounds in cash.  I remember ranting at the floor manager at their arrogance — “throwing good business away” was the phrase I used — and meeting with complete indifference.  Later (much too late, I think) they changed their policy to accept other cards.

At some point in the early 2000s, things began to change, and not for the better.  Instead of selling the M&S brand exclusively, M&S started to sell branded clothing — “tied” brands (exclusive to M&S), but the boutique stuff was more expensive than the house brand, a lot more, but with no discernible difference in quality.  Actually (and this is just a personal observation) I think the M&S allowed their brand’s quality to slip so that they could use the lower prices to compete with the cheaper High Street- and online competition.  Underwear that I’d bought in the mid-1990s lasted for at least five years, while the M&S underwear I bought in 2017 has already started to fall apart.

When online sales came along, M&S was always going to be the first one clobbered, and they were.  Probably the only thing that saved them was the expansion of their business into takeout convenience foods (which, in all fairness, are excellent albeit rather pricey).

Now the company has been kicked off the FTSE 100 (the Brit equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average — DJIA) because their corporate value has declined to the point of disqualification.   (And note BBC TV personality Jeremy Paxman’s complaint, because it’s very much the way I feel about their loss of quality).

The nearest American example of a corporation’s similar fall from grace is Sears — which once had a market share and customer esteem similar to that of M&S in the U.K., but is now in its death throes, for pretty much the same reasons.

I don’t think that M&S is going to fold any time soon — gawd, I hope they don’t, because where am I going to buy undies when the ones I have start falling apart in five years’ time? — but they have a hell of a job ahead of them.

9 comments

  1. More and more stores are failing by their own decisions. I still use almost daily the Craftsman framing hammer my dad gave me new back when I turned 16 in 1971. I have others, but the Craftsman that is always laying on the workbench ready to go to work. I have maybe $10k worth of Craftsman tools including an 18 year old 22hp riding mower I bought new and use all the time. Sears decided to close shop locally and now I have to drive at least 45 mins to their closest store. I went there once and the shelves were almost bare and attendants were not to be found, so I left empty handed. I want to add another set of 3/8″ deep set sockets in imperial and metric to my stable but a call to the store had none in stock and all online sources are priced on the moon. So I am forced to purchase another brand. No sale for Sears. See what I mean? For 100+ years they chose to be America’s store and were very successful at it, for the past 20 they have been making choices to do otherwise and been successful at that too. And we all suffer a little because of it. The end is coming and the waiting is the hardest part.

  2. I feel the same way about Brooks Brothers here in the USA. I looked upon it (starting my finance career in the late ‘70s) as still a “house of the holies” for appropriate business, and, to some degree, casual attire. And, now, two words: “Fallen Icon”. As to underwear, Hanes ”tighty whiteys” have been fine for me, very comfortable, but with little expectation of lasting more than six months. (I’m hard on underwear!)

  3. You’ve hit my nostalgia button this morning. I remember our late summer shopping trips to buy “school clothes”. This was back in the day when we actually dressed up decently for school and didn’t wear jeans with holes and dirty t shirts. We always shopped at Sears because their clothing was good quality and would last long enough that I typically outgrew the stuff before I wore it out. Since we lived in New Jersey (I left that pest hole 40 years ago) a winter coat was always part of the deal and it had to be a size or two bigger than my September size so it would still fit in March. Dad didn’t have a lot of money and he would probably drop $150 to $200 to get me set up for the year. Then he’d spend most of the year paying that bill off to start over again the next August.

    The first credit card I owned was for Sears. This was before the Bank Cards were in common use. I thought that I was a big deal because I was 22 years old, just out of the Navy, with a steady job and I had a credit card. I didn’t know at the time that all you had to do was drive past the store and they’d throw a card to you.

    Like you I have challenges with finding comfortable and durable clothing. I used to like Duluth Trading but they seem to be marketing to the Soy boys these days and the quality vs price has suffered. Since I’ve retired I’m dressing more casually and I find that the mid grade “tactical” offerings from companies like Blackhawk work well for this day old man. The pants are tough, they are some of the most “un-skinny” clothes around, and they have plenty of big pockets for things with sharp edges and other things that go bang.

  4. Being a Gentleman Of Unusual Size I was unable to find anything my size at Marks and Sparks when I was last Over There many eons ago. It’s difficult enough to find comfortable and useful clothing on this side of the Atlantic when you’re over size XL or 2XL. In Yurp and formerly-great Britain it’s exponentially more difficult.

    Back here I’m a solid convert to Duluth Trading for trousers and shorts (their Dry On The Fly line is simply heaven-sent), and short sleeve shirts. Sadly their long sleeve patterns puts the sleeve ends about 2″ past my fingertips. But for quality they can’t be beat. That said, I tried their various styles of underwear and not one single type fits comfortably. When you’re this size, “low-rise” briefs just don’t cut it. I want something that rises halfway up my gut, and that they don’t sell. I’d pay any price they’d ask if they did. Instead, for that commodity, I buy from the one company whose products I’ve worn since I was a wee lad back ‘ome: Stanfields, from Nova Scotia, Canada. Simply the best. I can get 6-10 years from them, even after boiling them regularly.

    My favourite line of clothing is from Tilley Endurables. I still have trousers from them that I bought in 1997. Although a bit too snug these days, they’re still fashionable, and in as good condition as they were when I bought them. I bought a new pair last year that I expect will outlast me by decades. They have a secret velcro-sealed travel pocket the size of a passport book, so they’re the only ones I wear when traveling, especially to places that I’d be in deep merde if my passport were to become lost. Tilley’s “adventure” line of clothing is surely expensive, but indestructible and great looking for people old enough to appreciate what they’ve got. Their trousers laundering instruction tag reads, and I quote, “give ’em hell.” Their socks and unders dry overnight so perfect for those like me who travel light, and those socks are simply the most comfortable I’ve ever worn. YMMV and all that, and no I don’t have any financial interest any either Duluth or Tilley, other than the thousand$ I’ve spent there over the years.

  5. Oh my. What ltdavel said. Lots of memories for me as well. Sometime around ’64-ish my grade school class took a day trip to the state capitol (Sacratamato) and I had neglected to inform my mother. Trip was fine, but when she found out that I wore Levi jeans instead of my ‘school’ pants, I got my ears singed.

    Along about 1990, I decided I needed a light chain saw for yard work. Off to Sears. Happened to notice a Craftsman (at that time, made by Poulan) box for a 16″ bar that was a return. $69.95. Perfect.
    I still have it. The most recent tear-down was because the plastic fuel line had hardened to the point that it was cracked in three places. Runs like a champ now.

    I also discovered that I suck at chain sharpening. Fortunately, there is a mower repair shop just up the road that charges $10 for chain sharpening. Worth every penny. I keep a spare and rotate them.

    1. Back in the day (we all sound like a bunch of old farts – which we are I guess!) when Craftsman tools were reasonably good, my biggest gripe was that they used different manufacturers from year to year. For example they’d write up a requirement for 3/8″ 18 volt battery drills. One year Makita would get the contract, the next year Ryobi got the job. I remember trying to buy a battery for one of my drills and they asked my what year it was made. When I finally figured that out I realized that they wanted $60 for a battery for an $80 drill. Obviously the idea was for you to throw the old drill away and buy a whole new one. Yeah I know that everybody does that, but it still doesn’t make it right.

      These days most of my power tools are Dewalt. They might cost a few more dollars but I can get parts.

  6. It seems Sears started their fall, years before the internet shopping killed them. They started selling reconditioned / remanufactured VCRs when so many of the then new machines were returned for eating tapes. It didn’t take long to apply that strategy to their other product lines, with similar results. Who wants to buy used or damaged hardware for like new prices.

    It looks like ATN is following the same line now. I’d expect the same results for them.

Comments are closed.