Marks & Spencer – it’s a truly household name in the UK. Cherished in the hearts of Brits as a clothing, home products and luxury food retailer that combines an air of distinction with a solid sense of “Britishness”, the brand, it has to be said, is largely regarded as being “traditional” – something that can be at odds with the digital demands of the modern age.
Nonetheless, 133 years since it was founded by Sir Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer in the northern city of Leeds, the retailer now has 914 stores in the UK (with a further 468 across Europe, Asia and the Middle East), enjoyed £10.6 billion in revenue in 2016, and has an increasingly strong online presence that is as forward-thinking and multi-channel-enabled as the brand itself is considered traditional.
And it seems to be a winning combination – especially since the retailer is finding more and more digital avenues through which customer convenience can be enabled and more sales driven.
In 2015, Marks & Spencer rolled out free in-store collection to more than 100 of its Simply Food outlets in motorway service stations, airports, railway stations and hospitals, making it even easier for customers to shop online. The move came just days after rival John Lewis announced that it would start charging customers £2 to collect online orders in store, claiming that web-based business models had become “unsustainable” and “bonkers”, according to a report in The Telegraph.
However, free collection is extremely popular amongst shoppers at Marks & Spencer – at the time of the roll-out, more than half of online orders were picked up in-store. As David Walmsley, then director of marksandspencer.com, explained:
"By extending the service to locations such as railways and service stations, which may form part of customers’ daily journey, we hope to make it even easier and more convenient for them to shop with M&S."
Sparking Up In-Store Fulfilment
Another big development for the retailer is found in its increasing commitment to improving in-store fulfilment. Marks & Spencer introduced its Sparks Card loyalty programme in November 2015 – a scheme that presents members with personalised offers across the whole M&S range, as well as invitations to special events, and priority access to “sale” items and new season previews on clothing. But the Sparks Card also provides a higher-level of convenience for shoppers – namely in the “stock finder” feature (mostly used for clothes shopping) that enables customers to check the availability of items in local stores.
With the Sparks Card system, Marks & Spencer is able to track the 1.4 million electronically tagged items that come out of its 900,000 sq ft distribution centre at Castle Donnington, Leicestershire, each week, and thereby inform customers whether the clothing items they’ve looked at online are indeed available in their size at their local store. This is the “Shop Your Way” click-and-collect initiative in action, and has become a fundamental way in which customers now shop at M&S. 40% of sales are now made via the Sparks Card, and the retailer is continuing to explore new ways to improve this side of the business.
“We’re redesigning collection tools, we’ve got rid of computers and changed these to hand held devices,” says Ricky Wilson, head of operations at Marks and Spencer. The devices improve efficiency and productivity, as they enable employees to multi-task whilst finding click-and-collect orders. “It’s now quicker to actually go and find the order […]. The speed of service is far improved.”
In addition, M&S have started to redesign stores so that fitting rooms are closer to pick-up points, meaning that customers are able to try on their items straight away, and then immediately pop them in the returns box if they don’t fit. “We get that item back into stock quicker,” said Wilson.
Personalisation has also become a key strategy for Marks & Spencer’s online efforts, and, once again, it has turned to the popular Sparks Card to experiment with data-driven marketing as the retailer attempts to connect more meaningfully with individual customers and give them what they want.
Speaking to analysts in November, M&S chief executive Steve Rowe revealed the scope of the retailer’s new marketing plans: “We want to use Sparks as a tool to reach out to our customers and to inform all of our new marketing campaigns. It will enable us to improve and have even deeper insight into how our customers are thinking and shopping.”
As Marks & Spencer seeks to build better customer relationships and provide greater convenience at every turn – be it through increasing the number of collection points, improving in-store fulfilment, or through data-driven marketing initiatives – the Sparks Card continues to be its greatest asset, providing customers an increasingly personalised shopping experience, and the retailer itself with the key insights it needs to serve them.
The last word goes to Steve Rowe:
“Five million people now have a Sparks card and it gives us a completely different type of marketing. Rather than increase the overall cost of marketing, Sparks will allow us to keep it down and do more direct marketing. It is also a channel that lets us get closer to our customers and understand their habits and what it is they want.”
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