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© Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Sep 3 2012

It's no secret that Marks & Spencer is suffering, but does the veteran British brand deserve to be? Our shopping team visited the Marble Arch flagship store to find out. Photography Rob Greig

Marks & Spencer has reported a dreadful year- with a 6.8 per cent fall in clothing sales, culminating in the departure of Kate Bostock, its long-standing head of non-food business, 'by mutual consent'. With an all-star, all-age advertising campaign that boasts of its appeal to all female demographics, it appears to be addressing none of them - which is why the Time Out shopping team decided to see for themselves why one of London's best-loved stores is receiving a widespread slamming.

SARA O'REILLY, 50

Do you ever shop in M&S?
I'm a regular, although I often come away empty-handed. It's great for tights, knickers and footwear. My local branch, in Clapham Junction, is beyond grim, so I always go to the flagship store at Marble Arch. The trouble is, it often seems like there's an official policy of concealing the best stuff under mountains of over-embellished tat.

What were your first impressions?
From the ground floor up, the look M&S seems to be going for is 'slightly run-down hospital'.

Did it offer a pleasant shopping experience/ambience?
Downstairs in the food department, a lot of effort has gone into making the deli area look really appealing. On the clothing and homeware floors, there's only the odd, desultory string of bunting. If I didn't know from experience that a bit of a rummage is likely to turn up things I'd want, nothing would tempt me to linger.

Did you feel part of M&S's target market?
I'd say that the clothes in the Autograph range are probably targeted at a slightly less scruffy version of me.

Did you find stuff that you actually wanted to buy?
I found coats I liked in the Limited and Autograph ranges. Both had a '50s feel, with three quarter-length sleeves and flattering collars. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a £300 price tag on the Autograph coat, which actually cost £129. I also pounced on a grey and navy Autograph short-sleeved shift (£49.50) in the minimal style Cos does so brilliantly. Like some coats, it was let down by a polyester lining. I was pleased to discover the new beauty department stocks hard-to-find I Coloniali soap, which I store in my sweater drawer, because it has a lovely delicate woody scent that seems to keep moths at bay.

How did you rate the changing rooms?
The hospital aesthetic extends to the fitting rooms, which are not remotely enticing. Usually I take clothes home to try them on and return them if they don't suit. Almost everyone offers that option now, but M&S pioneered it, and still makes the process more straightforward than anyone else.
On a recent visit, I heard a changing-rooms assistant tell a customer: 'Working in here, I don't see much, except what people bring in to try on.' Obviously, a policy of keeping the changing rooms staff updated about new lines would allow them to help customers, although I love the fact that no one has ever tried to sell me anything in M&S.

Top buy Autograph cashmere-lined leather gloves, £35. The cuffs are the perfect length for those '50s coats.

Bottom buy Per Una sequinned brown linen bag, £19.95. Hideous.

KATIE DAILEY, 30

Do you ever shop in M&S?
Marks & Spencer is my secret weapon. Perhaps it's because I work in the West End, making my local store the smart UK?flagship (which is much swisher than the local branches), but I've always found at least one or two great buys in the fashion department. The added bonus is that no one else will be seen in it, because no one I know shops here. From incredibly comfortable snakeskin platforms to the Missoni-esque jacket that I bought about a decade ago - in Per Una of all departments - I really rate the store for quality and variety. I think it's much underrated.

What were your first impressions of the store?
Clean, spacious and empty. But it was 10am during the Olympics, with tumbleweed blowing the length of Oxford Street.

Did it offer a pleasant shopping experience/ambience?
It's a functional place - no queues, lots of changing rooms, no music and very bright lighting - so the antithesis of buzzy Topshop, or luxury boutiques. The clothing department feels more like a continuation of the food hall.

Did you find it easy to navigate around the store?
The problem is the sheer bloody scale of the place - it is vast. I already know my way around, and I know how to spot good on-trend buys, but I could imagine someone less familiar with the store, not to mention the catwalk trends, would be lost in here. You could happily do away with the first floor, and give women just the ground floor to play with - it's a day's work in itself. There isn't a lot of flagging up of the great stuff either. One of the few shops on Oxford Street still selling summerwear on a boiling-hot August day needs to be shouting about it on mannequins and in windows - instead, there's a peculiar display of woollens-clad, headless dummies supposedly marketing festivalwear. Leading me to believe that no one in the merch team at M&S has ever been to a festival.

Did you feel part of?M&S's target market?
I suspect I'm the 'fast-fashion' Limited range target market. But I always find the bits I?like in odd places- the men's cashmere, the tailoring in Per Una (hidden behind terrifyingly printed summer dresses) and the old ladies' sandals in the Footglove range - expensive heels have nothing on
M&S £17 platforms for comfort. I can almost hear Dervla Kirwan when I slip them on.

Did you think the products were well displayed?
I feel like I find good stuff in M&S despite the displays, not because of them. I can see what it's doing with its Limited, Autograph and Per Una strands, but I'd love to see the zoning go further- music and nail bars and maybe a separate entrance for the younger shopper. Sofas and flowers in Autograph. The shoe department deserves recognition for its display of pairs and half sizes (hallelujah!).

Top buy Per Una Shimmer Jacket, £55. Very Matthew Williamson.

Bottom buy Per Una Floral & Abstract Print Maxi Dress, £49.50. My worst nightmare in fabric form.

MAGGIE DAVIS, 36

Do you ever shop in M&S?
Yes, I love the knickers and regularly buy underwear for my husband here. Also the odd bit of kidswear - it does amazing fancy dress costumes for Halloween. And bed linen, as the Autograph high-thread-count sheets are excellent value for money.

What were your first impressions?
Big, bright and a bit bland, to be honest. M&S has great stock if you root for it, but the strip lighting gives it a supermarket feel, and the displays are a bit drab. But while it's not exactly a thrilling shopping experience, the Marble Arch flagship store was remarkably calm first thing on a weekday morning. Staff were attentive but not over-the-top, and the changing rooms were nearly empty, which is always a bonus.

Did you feel part of M&S's target market?
Not really. There's a mass of stuff and I wasn't sure whether I should be looking at Limited or Autograph. As a 36-year-old with two young children, I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle.

Did you find stuff you wanted to buy?
Yes, a lot more than I expected. I tried on quite a lot of the Limited Collection and found a neat little capped-sleeved dress that Kate Middleton wouldn't turn her nose up at, some good cord shorts and a Peter-Pan collar shirt. The shoe department is a revelation, with chic, ultra comfortable designs. I loved the swanky new beauty department on the first floor, full of products exclusive to M&S, including exciting newer brands Nuxe and Skyn Iceland.

Did you think products had been stylishly displayed?
No. M&S really needs to work on displaying its stock. It has some great dresses and tops for younger shoppers and tons of Sam Cam-worthy day dresses, but it's hard to know where to look. Because it's such an enormous shop, with a vast amount of stock, everything should be signposted really clearly. On the upside, staff are really helpful, and when you do find a good item, it's excellent value for money.

Top buy Peter Pan blouse, £29.50. It looked far more expensive.

Bottom buy Polyester Union Jack knickers, £5. Yuck.

HAYLEY CAMERON, 21

Do you ever shop in M&S?
I've always associated the shop with long childhood shopping sessions with my mum. I tend to stick to Topshop and Miss Selfridge now.

What were your first impressions of the store?
Not great. The decor is so white. It's as if they spent all of their interior design budget on plastering Dannii Minogue and Twiggy across the UK.

Did it offer a pleasant shopping experience/ambience?
It was nice, but I usually prefer something a bit more exciting when I go shopping- somewhere you could bump into Kate Moss or Lily Allen. Somehow, I can't imagine seeing either in Per Una.

Did you find it easy to navigate around the store?
The Limited Collection -- the one that's aimed at their younger customers - is the first thing I saw as I walked through the doors. I didn't venture far from it, though.

Did you feel like the range was targeting you?
Not hugely; I imagine the Limited Collection is aimed at a slightly older, more professional demographic.

Did you find stuff you wanted to wear and buy?
I noticed a few nice things in the range, although most of them are the kind of thing I'd only wear to work - smart dresses, fitted blazers, skirts that aren't quite short enough to be deemed risqué etc. I did find a lovely pair of grey, skinny jeans and a gorgeous burgundy sweatshirt with a large black owl on the front that's obviously influenced by Burberry's catwalk design.

Top buy Limited Collection Slim Leg Washed Jeans, £35. I didn't expect to find skinny jeans here.

Bottom buy Per Una Floral Satin Pyjamas, £19.50. They look so old-fashioned.

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