Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Marks & Sparks is closing down, closing down...

An icon of British clothing retail is quitting Poland. Well, we knew this last autumn, and were expecting the store to close with the end of last year. It's soldiering on until the end of this month. Just across the road and a bit from my office, the departure of Marks & Spencers will not go unrecorded here.

But is it a shame? Don't know...


Marks & Spencers could have been massive in Poland today. They could have been what Zara or H&M are. But no. Instead, we have a business-school case study of how not to do market entry. And the advantage the brand had when the old system gave way to free-market democracy! Marks & Spencers was well known in Poland for decades.

Back in communist days, many Poles had families in the West who'd send them, as my family did, parcels of clothes - not to wear, but to sell. Polish consumers, starved of anything fashionable, colourful or distinguishing, would go to bazaars (like Skra or Bazar Różyckiego in Warsaw) where people with connections in the West would sell them for hard currency. My parents would regularly send parcels to their families in Poland; parcels would contain clothes from Marks & Spencer (the well regarded St Michael's brand in those days), carefully wrapped. Well do I remember driving with my parents and my brother after Polish Saturday school in Chiswick to a small Paczki do Polski shop on the Fulham Palace Road from where fashionable knitwear wrapped in brown paper would be sent to Warsaw and to Bystrzyca Kłodzka. And the feedback was the same - 'please send more from 'Marksa i Spencera bo to się najlepiej sprzedaje' (it sells best).

The result is that by 1989, in what had been a 50-year hiatus in consumer consciousness, Marks and Spencer had sky-high brand recognition and positive association as Poland reopened for business. But what did this British retailer do with this brand capital? It sat on its hands for several years. Then it sent an executive, who according to expat lore from the mid-1990s, lived in the Marriott Hotel and sent reports each months to London HQ saying why the Polish market wasn't quite ready yet. Finally a franchised operation was opened in 1998 in a flimsy blaszak (temporary tin building) near Warsaw Central station, selling clothes for literally double the UK prices. Finally, in 2008, M&S entered the market in its own right, with store openings in Złote Tarasy and Domy Handlowe Centrum. Eventually, there were 11 M&S stores across Poland.

Below: Warsaw locations hardly come primer than Domy Handlowe Centrum, across the tram tracks from Pałac Kultury.

A survey carried out in 2006 among Warsaw consumers by students from Warsaw Technical University Business School asked about awareness of British brands. Marks & Spencer came top. Number one in unprompted recall of British brands. Interestingly, most of the top ten were luxury car brands; Tesco - which had a couple of hundred stores at that time to M&S's six came in at number 20. So there we are - a huge opportunity, huge goodwill, squandered. Now M&S will retreat from Poland, in the footsteps of other defeated British retailers here, Dixons (as Electroworld), Carpetright, British Home Stores, Topshop and Mothercare.

How will I cope though? The best thing about M&S for me is not having to think. If I need a shirt, socks or underpants, I just go to M&S and buy - office shirts, underpants, socks, trousers (NEVER jeans or anything Blue Harbour - obciach Panie!), the occasional suit. A habit acquired in childhood visits with my mother to the M&S in West Ealing and Ealing Broadway, carried over into adult life.

Suits I now buy from Vistula, they have the edge in cut and quality (my last M&S suit consisted of trousers made in Vietnam and a jacket made in Indonesia. Or the other way round). "Guess how many shirts I got ? How many pairs of shoes? How many ties? Shit, I don't know, must be 25 at least" (Quote from Repo Man, one of my favourite cult films). Well, I just counted my M&S shirts. Forty. Plus the one I'm wearing right now. Some of them are more than a bit worn, but I won't part with them. And there must be several more of my M&S shirts at my father's in London.

Socks. Walking 11,000 paces a day puts holes in socks quickly. M&S socks included. I'm feeling, hey, the quality's not what it was, but I never racked up so many kilometres of walking as I'm doing right now. Socks and underpants I can buy elsewhere - but not shirts.

My shirts must be right. Long sleeves - always. A breast pocket for mobile phones, white, 15-and-half inch collar, regular sleeve length - and slim fit. Not tailored, nor regular - slim.  A three-pack of such shirts costs £15.99 in the UK; but the slim-with-breast-pocket is a hard item to find. But since November, there have been NO shirts that fit these requirements in the M&S in Warsaw. Either 18-inch collars, everything else right (slim fit and 18" collar?) or the right fit but no pocket...

So shirts I will continue to buy at M&S in Ealing, I'm there often enough. Jackets and trousers these days I tend to buy exclusively from the Children's Society charity shop on Pitshanger Lane. Here I bought a beautiful M&S trenchcoat secondhand, with all the details - buttons, flaps etc, in Lovat green, for a mere £13.99. And a beautiful M&S leather jacket, styled like a US biker jacket from the 1930s, for £24.99. Why buy new when you can buy nearly new and support a charity?

Food. Son Eddie is a great fan of the M&S food hall in Warsaw, and says that the retailer should have considered just keeping the Simply Food part of its business going here in Poland. He is too cool and hip to wear M&S clothing himself, but the food from there he loves. Me, I can do without, there's plenty of really good food shops in Warsaw right now, the choice has never been better.

Frankly the demise of M&S in Poland will go unnoticed and unmourned by me. It could have been so much different if only the management had attacked the Polish (and indeed Central and Eastern European) market with sufficient determination back in the early 1990s.

This time four years ago:
Along mirror'd canyons

This time six years ago:
Mad about Marmite 

This time seven years ago:
Komorowski wins second round of Presidential elections?

This time eight years ago:
A beautiful summer dusk in Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
Classic cars, London and Warsaw


meika loofs samorzewski said...

possibly explains Brexit too

Tomasz D. said...

In 1998 I was a trainee in PR agency that was introducing M&S to Polish market. We made an opening of the first shop, we even managed to invite The First Lady Mrs Jolanta Kwaśniewska...

Another story - I tried to buy a casual trousers in M&S few days ago. Wearing a model from previous year I entered the shop and tried on some trousers of exactly same size. None of them fit. Current fashion is for skinny, girl-shaped guys.

Anonymous said...

I stopped in M&S in Warsaw on a visit from provincial Poland some time back. I was excited to find a food section, including a freezer section. Yet, while there was a wide selection of frozen Indian dishes, there were no pork pies or bangers! I don't give a toss about south Asian food, but I'd have stocked up on British goodies.

(M&S Canada, when they still existed, managed to have these items. But M&S management messed up that market, too, and pulled out!)

Michael Dembinski said...

@ meika: with iconic British brands as mismanaged as this one, I can't see that swashbuckling, buccaneering spirit of bravado required to make a success of Brexit at all. Just toffs braying on about 'sovereigntaigh!' and the poorly educated voting leave 'because migrants'.

@Tomasz D: 'Regular' shirts outnumber 'slim' shirts about 20 to 1. As for trousers - don't know, stopped buying them from M&S about five years ago.

@ Anonymous: was a time when this was the only source of Basmati rice in Warsaw. Now Auchan has it, don't buy it there. Pork pies... now that's something I really miss!

student SGH said...

A long-sleeve shirt from M&S?

A few years ago I wanted to find any that would fit my dimensions (height: 188-194 cm, collar: 40, sleeve length: 69 cm) and it turned out I was too tall and skinny to fit within standarised sizes of M&S.

Maybe I would pop in before their shop by Marszalkowska closes down for good.

Ian Wilcock said...

Shame on the food side, they never really grabbed a market there for bacon, sausage until too late. clothes wise they were too expensive on arrival, lost market and never managed to get it back. Shame but I only really go if I am in town for something else and want mustard or bacon...