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M&S heads back to basics as fashion takes a back seat to quality, fit and price

Fashion is to take a back seat at Marks & Spencer with the UK retail giant pledging Tuesday a return to its roots by delivering “quality, fit, wearable style at lower prices”.

M&S will increasingly base its design decisions on feedback from hundreds of thousands of customers and announced it has recruited some of its biggest private shareholder critics to a new panel – all women and aged 50-plus – to help lead the change in direction.

“I know that it is a big ask for me to stand here with a new set of ideas and ask you to trust me that things will be different this time”, M&S chief executive Steve Rowe told a packed AGM in west London on Tuesday.

“I know where the skeletons are and I’m taking them out”, he said in an impassioned speech on how he would “get the sales back into positive”.

Rowe told shareholders that the retail giant had surveyed more than 250,000 customers this year. For example, he noting than many had “adored” its cardigan coat so much, it doubled production and will make it available in a range of colours.

He added: “We have been giving our customers too many reasons not to shop with us. They tell us we have not got the balance right between style and fashion.

“We are going to focus on wearable contemporary style rather than cutting edge catwalk fashion” by delivering “fit that really flatters” and noted “we have made significant changes to the way we buy, design and source our clothes.

“We have fabulous customers, they are stylish and savvy,” he added.

Rowe also said he wants to increase the proportion of under-25s who shop at M&S, which currently stands at just 22%.

However, he still came under fire from one shareholder, a Mrs Smith, who was affronted by his remarks when he first took charge that he wanted to ‘cherish and celebrate Mrs M&S’.

“My name is not Mrs M&S”, the investor said. “It suggests to me that you still live in a world where women dress head to toe in Marks & Spencer. We do not, we are individuals… and don’t like to be labelled particularly with an association to a failing retailer.”

Chairman Robert Swannell reacted furiously to the comments, saying that he “was not going to accept unwarranted criticism” and defended the retailer’s successes and Rowe’s comment as a throwaway line.

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