‘Protect the magic and modernise the rest’: walking Marks & Spencer’s renewed SW11 store

On a beautiful, sunny London day this week, I made my way down to Clapham to meet up with Stuart Machin, Managing Director, Food, M&S. The venue is the newly renovated M&S store and he is giving me a tour to show me what can be done when you take a store that you have traded in for 105 years and bring it up to date. The store originally sold both Food and Clothing and his team thought it would be the perfect location for the first London food-only renewal store.

The renovation starts from the  ‘get go’ and the front façade has been taken back to the original, beautiful curved glass windows where you can see all the way to the back of the store. The original clock has been restored, the red brickwork and iron columns have been uncovered and it has the feeling of an original Victorian building with a contemporary industrial feel. 

I joined M&S in May 2018,” Stuart tells me, “and I started out by setting the strategic overview for my team. We went around the world looking at the best stores. It is early days in our transformation and although we are seeing green shoots, it’s a multi-year plan. We are encouraged, but we have a huge task ahead of us.”

He continues: “My mantra has become: protect the magic and modernise the rest. The heritage of M&S is so important and the brand means so much to our customers, that I always want to keep that top of mind but rethink how we serve and sell. The store has been designed with the mind of a supermarket and the soul of a fresh market.”  

Photo credit: M&S

Retailers often talk about in-store theatre. SW11, as the store is now named, is just that. They have their own glitter ball pizza oven. The aroma as the woodfired pizzas are cooked to order and ready in two minutes is delicious. Next to the oven in a tall shiny case, chickens are turning on the rotisserie. Warm bread is being cooked and served in the bakery. There is a free water refill station; there are coffee and wine tasting units; swipe your Sparks card and sample different coffees; there’s a dog bowl with water and a DJ playing music. They have removed all plastic carrier bags, they are on a journey to use more recyclable plastic and they’re teaching their customers to buy more loose vegetables.

One of the most satisfying aspects of what I do is making connections. Last year, I met Erez Galonska, co-founder & CEO, Infarm, a vertical/urban farming company based out of Berlin. Infarm and M&S are partnering to sell fresh vegetables grown without pesticides under artificial light, allowing them to deliver much fresher produce straight to customers. Stuart plans to roll them out in another six stores soon with the idea of having a farm in every store. Picking your own herbs that have not travelled is experiential retailing at its best. M&S were one of the first to have a sustainability agenda – do you remember their remarkable series of adverts entitled  ‘Look behind the label’?

Along comes Joe, the Store Manager, to chat to us. Gone are the suit and tie and Joe is head to toe in M&S (of course), looking smart and cool in a black t-shirt, grey trousers and white trainers. The badge has his name on it but no title. Joe explains to me: “Stuart has introduced a different culture to the food team – no hierarchy, pace and passion. As a Store Manager, I feel listened to and he has encouraged us all to listen to our customers.” Joe continues: “70% of the team in this store are new and together with the colleagues who were here and know M&S so well, we are helping to create a new culture.” 

Photo credit: M&S

I am always interested in the criteria for hiring and how it is done. Joe tells me that supermarket experience was not top of the list. He hired on personality and a love of food. Most of the people that he hired live locally and were hired through social media. Colleagues are friendly, helpful and feel engaged. There is much activity and an air of excitement throughout the store. In addition, there are tasting stations manned by experts talking about the merchandise – do you remember when every store across the UK had experts you could talk to?

I need to draw our conversation to a close as I can feel that Stuart is impatient to get on and do what he likes best – roll his sleeves up, talk to colleagues, make changes, talk to customers and keep to his plan of restoring the M&S food business to its former glory.

Final question: Who are your mentors? “Well firstly, my team are a huge inspiration – we’re a family and are all in this together. We are working very hard and take our business seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I am lucky with my team.

“With 30 years of experience at M&S under his belt, Steve Rowe provides me with the courage to back a decision I need to take and yet gives me the freedom to get on. I always come away with golden nuggets and ideas after meeting with him.

“Archie Norman – there is no-one else in the retail world like him. Archie genuinely cares about people and he coaches me to be the very best that I can be. His wisdom and experience is second to none.

“Michael Mire is a huge inspiration and mentor to me. I feel privileged to be able to bounce ideas off him – he is insightful and a real retail expert.”

Moira@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup