Marks & Spencer’s legacy real estate

I published a piece on Saturday about the unprecedented expansion of our major chain stores in the 1930s.  Despite its ups and downs, one of the strongest survivors from that era is Marks & Spencer, and no sooner had I finished waxing elegiac than this story arrived from My Retail Media.  Having invested around £2 billion in capital improvements under Stuart Rose, M&S is going to have to pump in another £600m to keep up, as Marc Bolland seeks to make stores “more inspiring”.

In large part, this is a legacy of those stores of the 1930s, built to a plan that no longer provides the flexibility that today’s retailers need.  Updating what was state-of-the-art eighty or more years ago is heart-stoppingly difficult.  There’s no better example than Selfridge’s total store revamp on Oxford Street.  Freed from Sears Group, the store tore a hole the size of an apartment block out of the middle of the store, and installed the escalator banks that Selfridge’s had always needed, west, centre and east.  The remainder of the store was reconfigured around these new axes.

But that was just one shop.  And M&S’s ageing estate is still rife with difficult and expensive challenges – escalators clinging to walls (are they still up-only in some locations?), low ceiling heights, level changes in floors, and a too many vertical columns in the absence of today’s long, load-bearing steel beams.  Some of this can be exploited charmingly in more exclusive boutiques, but it hampers M&S significantly.  And the company still has too many city centre sites that are just too small, or suffer from having the offer split across more than one location (the Greenbury Littlewoods acquisition…).

Visit a new-build M&S, on a retail park such as Hayle in Cornwall, or Parc Fforestfach in Swansea, and you’ll be struck by the difference.  Space, flexibility and ease of navigation are all hugely improved, and the store experience is somehow much more informal and – in a sense – less “Marks-and-Spencery”.  M&S still carries a great deal of legacy baggage which – sometimes problematically for management – can be well-loved by shoppers for whom M&S is part shop, part institution.

I’m looking forward to seeing M&S’s latest iteration at Westfield Stratford (retail boys’ day out next week).  However, having read that Waitrose has just spent £15m upgrading a single, relatively modern store, I suspect that £600m will not be the end of the company’s necessary capital investment.

Photo: Estates Gazette