Why has Marks & Spencer put digital boss in charge of UK stores?

02 July 2014 -


High street retailer’s move to put online and bricks-and-mortar eggs in one basket is part of attempt to picture a single view of the customer

Jermaine Haughton

Marks & Spencer has handed control of its retail outlets to the head of its internet business, in a bid to integrate its online and physical operations. Laura Wade-Gery will run M&S’s 800 outlets in the UK in addition to maintaining her digital remit, and will become the first woman to lead M&S’s retail business.

Mooted as a future successor to current chief executive Marc Bolland, Wade-Gery lead M&S through a £100m website refresh, and has previous experience masterminding the online arm of Tesco. Her promotion to a dual senior role is one of a number of changes to the firm’s senior management. Other moves include marketing and business development director Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne taking the helm of international business, following the departure of Jan Heere to Russia. Newly promoted international director Costas Antimissaris will be reporting directly to Bousquet-Chavanne, as M&S strives to make waves overseas.

Some critics point to the shake-up at M&S as a move of desperation, following a series of key managers jumping ship – from clothing chief Kate Bostock to marketing director Steve Sharp. Furthermore, the retailer is expected to report another decline in clothing sales – particularly ladieswear – at its AGM in London next week, putting Bolland under even greater pressure.

Alongside its board changes, M&S has promised that it is “enhancing lives, every day” and has unveiled four new, core values: inspiration, innovation, integrity and in-touch. Bolland said: “Over the last three years, we have worked hard to transform M&S into an international, multichannel retailer that is fit for the future of retail. We now have the right infrastructure in place to take our business forward, and as we enter the next phase of our plan, we need to make sure our team structures and internal processes allow us to move with pace, simplicity and speed.”

Wade-Gery’s step up is an important move for the retailer, particularly as her influence on M&S’s online operations has pushed M&S.com to become, according to Bolland, the company’s largest single point of sale. As such, it is hoped that the appointment will lead to a smoother integration of the firm’s digital and physical presences, allowing each to boost the sales of the other. Alongside Bolland’s statement, the company said that Wade-Gery’s new role would allow her to form “one view of the customer”.

Chloe Rigby, writer at online journal Internet Retailing, says that the move is key to developing the future of M&S’s retail departments. “This move to give multichannel director Laura Wade-Gery responsibility for UK stores is a logical step in a world where crosschannel retailing is gaining in ascendancy. But it’s an interesting one, nonetheless, for the direct way it puts the stores at the service of multichannel ambitions. The aim, says M&S, is to ensure a single view of the customer. And such a single view, extending from the stores to online and mobile, is really necessary in order to learn from customers and so retain their loyalty in the long term.”

However, questions remain over whether controlling the digital and offline divisions is too big a gap to bridge, or whether M&S risks overburdening an already busy executive. Despite Wade-Gery’s successes in online operations, she will need to adjust to the different challenges faced on the shop floor – in particular reversing public perceptions of M&S’s range.

Shore Capital analyst Clive Black said: “That weak apparel performance comes back to the legacy of many years of poor ranges and, frankly, brand damage that M&S is seeking to overcome in the UK with respect to its core clothing offer. While many commentators see demonstrable progress at the catwalk level, it does not seem to be leading to stronger consumer interest on the shop floor.”

One area that has proved successful for M&S is its click-and-collect facility, which allows customers to buy products online and pick up the item at a physical store at a time of their choosing. Clare Evans, writer at eCommerce Insiders, says that the initiative shows how bricks-and-mortar and online facilities can work in tandem to boost sales.

“Bricks-and-clicks retail uses ecommerce sales to drive footfall in-store,” she wrote, “showing that these two elements can live more than harmoniously together. In some instances, it can also increase up-sells and cross-sells. “For instance, a shopper could collect a new digital camera and be sold a tripod and additional lenses by the sales staff in store. This digital acquisition makes for a simple but effective combination of both elements of a retailers’ offering. Digital integration is fast becoming commonplace in our retail stores.”

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Image of Marks and Spencer signage courtesy of JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock

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