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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Nation's Knickers

In these days of Primark, I am impressed by the survival of market stalls [all over the UK and beyond] whose owners seem to thrive on selling clothes, especially underwear and nightwear for women and children. Compared to Primark the range is limited and the prices are relatively high, but these stalls [particularly in market halls] provide full-time employment for their managers.

Virtually everybody uses underwear, therefore they need to buy it somewhere. It can come by home delivery after being bought online, in plain packaging, however 'exotic' or bizarre it may be; but most people buy it in person.

For three generations, the predominant supplier of underwear to the British nations was Marx &Spencer, M&S, which was an essential component of every high street and shopping mall in the land. They set the pace in design; but they were never the cheapest option. They increased the range of outwear that they sold, especially after the second world war, and through the age of austerity that was followed by the 'mixed economy'. Then, in the nineteen-sixties, new sorts of rivals emerged. M&S had itself originated as a market stall and as long as the founding families were in control it retained something of the open-market approach to stock purchases. The new chains of shops emphasised that they were 'fashion' outlets; while M&S - whatever its image-makers tried to present - was seen as essentially a utilitarian source of supply focused on the lower middle classes. Thus the market changed around the old staple: which then - in the 'seventies - had a serendipitous moment. M&S started supplying food for the busy housewives who had jobs, and quickly developed a positive reputation for ready-made or part-prepared meals.

Fast-forward to today. There are still M&S shops on all high streets, but the balance of trade in them has changed dramatically. After decades of redesign and restructuring [and financial losses, and changes of chief executive] the firm still has not caught up with the customers' behaviour. hence this morning they have announced a 64% drop in profits for the past year. This is ascribed to the need to spend ever-more money on shutting down acreages of clothes hangers and sock-and-knicker-stalls, and to open or adapt more smaller sales floors for food.

The dilemma that the firm has faced - and still faces - is that they are locked into property contracts [including the ownership of large buildings] which were ideal for extensive departmental stores, but which are not much wanted by their rivals and are vastly greater than their own requirements. To sell or lease whole or part of buildings to rival clothing suppliers would anyhow accelerate the decline of M&S as clothiers, by assisting the competitors to gain high-street prominence. Yet M&S need physical shops where the families can buy their part-prepared meals. There is mounting competition from the fast-food delivery firms, which chip away at the ready-food market as fast as M&S can adapt their estate to supply it: and it is probably too late for M&S to enter the market with a fleet of motorbikes, unless they are able to merge with [or take over] a market leader in that field.

Thus we are likely to see continuing phases in the decline and fall of a predominant name in British retailing: while the market stalls serenely carry on.

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