M&S was right to spend on stores
There was a time, not very long ago, when Marks & Spencer store interiors were frequently described as "Stalinist". The inference was that while the stock might have been OK, the store design department had been virtually non-existent and the shops had been preserved in aspic from some point in the early 1970s.
This was probably fair comment given that prior to the arrival of Sir Stuart Rose in 2004, this was a retailer that might have been the darling of the Shires but its stores could never have been considered cutting edge. Post 2004, the now familiar shape of a modern M&S interior began to form and remodelled stores have, until the past six months, been considered an integral part of the M&S recovery story.
There have, naturally, been detractors throughout the period since this renewal began, with the question of cost being raised by some commentators in an almost mantra-like fashion. And, to an extent, there is good reason for this. Store refurbs on the scale undertaken by M&S do not come cheap and the hit on the capital expenditure budget over the past five years or so has been huge.
But for those now pointing fingers and saying that the much-discussed M&S recovery has stalled irrevocably, it is perhaps worth thinking of an alternative scenario. Imagine that instead of spending a great deal of money on improving store environments, M&S had opted to play around with the formats that existed prior to Rose's arrival. Large amounts of cash might have been saved, but would its customer base have defected in ever-greater numbers for the non-food offers of the supermarkets and maybe Primark, New Look and Topshop?
Yes, M&S has certainly felt the breeze from an increasingly competitive landscape, but on the other hand what currently looks like a bad dose of retail flu might well have proved terminal.
Two and a bit cheers therefore for a retailer that had the courage to recognise its failings and, in the case of its store interiors, do a lot about it.
In the long term - and there will be a long term - M&S will still be praised for what it did with its stores and the programme will be seen as a benefit rather than any kind of cash-heavy albatross strung around the corporate neck.