Mr Bolland said there has been a “gradual improvement” in the performance of M&S’s clothing business. The company “sold through” 80pc of the clothing advertised in its high-profile ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign within six weeks.
However, if M&S is to put its clothing arm on a permanently firmer footing, it could still learn lessons from the extraordinary success of its upstart rival Primark.
The discount retailer Primark only arrived in the UK in 1973, 89 years after M&S, but if present trends continue then it will have as many clothing customers as M&S within two years.
The first lesson from Primark is that price really matters.
This sounds obvious, but it is worth restating. Any questions about whether the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh would lower sales for Primark have been comprehensively answered by the latest results from the retailer’s parent company Associated British Foods.
British consumers are still cash-strapped and want a bargain. However, their focus is not necessarily what is the cheapest, but what is the best value for money.
Primark, with its fast fashion focus, has effectively revolutionised the style of discount clothing. Sometimes its T-shirts may only last two washes, but the customers will look good wearing them.
This type of innovation was the hallmark of M&S clothing in its heyday of the 1980s and 1990s – it made seemingly aspirational clothing available to every family in Britain.
The second lesson is that stores must inspire customers.
Primark stores are no longer just a jumble sale. The retailer’s new London store on Tottenham Court Road includes video screens and quirky displays.
The shop layout presents Primark’s clothing as if it is far more sophisticated than the price suggests.
Primark, remember, does not sell clothes online, which also demonstrates how important the high street remains.
M&S, on the other hand, has a diverse collection of stores. Its revamped Pantheon store on Oxford Street is a vast improvement on older stores, with the sub-brands clearly split up, and shows that Mr Bolland recognises what the company must change.
However, as Bryan Roberts at Kantar says: “While the womenswear collection was met with rapturous acclaim by the fashion press, conversations with store managers have hinted at shortfalls in availability for strongly selling items, while merchandising veers from excellent to abysmal depending on which store you happen to visit.”
The third lesson from the success of Primark is that retailers can’t be everything to be everyone.
The success of Primark has reshaped the clothing industry. Whereas M&S used to be the place to go for clothing staples such as vests, underwear and socks, Primark has claimed much of this market for itself.
In food, M&S does not pretend to be mainstream. Its food is positioned as specialist and it is reaping the benefits, with sales growing well ahead of the market.
Some retail analysts believe M&S must go the same way in clothing as it has in food.
Neil Saunders, managing director at Conlumino, said: “M&S needs to be more radical and more innovative if it is to regain some of the ground it has lost in clothing.
“It needs to excite customers and inspire them and it needs to make the many women who have abandoned M&S over recent years want to take another look. The current developments go part of the way, but they don’t completely cut the mustard.”