How M&S.com boss Stephen Langford is accelerating online growth
After spending the last decade in the doldrums, M&S’s turnaround is finally on track and that’s no small feat due to its rapidly growing online business.
The man responsible for its meteoric growth is Stephen Langford, who joined M&S in May 2020 after a nine-year stint at George.com to lead its online home and clothing division.
Langford returned to M&S as he was enticed by the prospect of working on his long-awaited transformation. “As a company, we’ve been talking about transformation for several years and it’s something I couldn’t resist,” he explains.
However, when he accepted the role, he was unaware that he would be responsible for the bulk of clothing and home sales when he started, which turned out to be in the middle of the first lockdown.
“I was immersed in the heart of the matter,” he laughs. “It was an exciting time to join us as all eyes were on the performance of the online business.”
M&S had long struggled to grow its online sales, lagging slick multi-channel rivals such as Next and John Lewis, which made trading in an environment where many of its clothing stores were closed potentially perilous.
However, Langford’s division was successful. In its last half to Oct. 2, online apparel and home sales in 2021 soared 60% year-over-year.
A different M&S
M&S is a very different place to the retailer Langford left in 2011, he says.
“I see a lot of the same faces, but a lot of new ideas, and basically there’s a lot of different approaches that the company has taken,” he says.
To finally get its recovery on track, M&S embraced new ideas and ways of working and the pandemic was a catalyst for this.
In fact, within weeks of Langford joining M&S, it launched its “Never the Same Again” strategy, aimed at learning from the crisis and capitalizing on opportunities to drive its transformation in a changed consumer environment.
He also introduced MS2a division that brings together its online, data and digital capabilities that allow it to “Trade faster with a range and availability adapted to the online model”.
The division is led by Jeremy Pee, director of digital and data for Langford and M&S, and is responsible for driving the retailer’s digital growth.
“We seek to challenge the way the rest of the business thinks and bring different approaches to solving problems. As an organization, we want to focus more on outcomes rather than products,” explains- he.
Langford says the division is “a key part of why we have great momentum in M&S online.”
A middle-aged Asos?
So what did Langford do to turn his fortune online? One of the big things he’s been working on is adding third-party brands to the M&S fashion offering.
The retailer first introduced contemporary womenswear brand Nobody’s Child – of which it has since taken a 25% stake – on its website in October 2020, and has since added 40 other brands, including Jigsaw, Sosander, Ben Sherman, Joules and Hobbs. It is quickly becoming the online destination for fashion-conscious forties.
So, is M&S now middle-aged Asos? When Retail Gazette poses this to Langford, he pauses to think before deciding that is not the retailer’s intention.
“We’re focused on curating our lineup, it’s not about seeing how much stuff we release in front of our customers,” he says.
Langford also insists he isn’t afraid to cannibalize M&S apparel sales by putting these new brands in front of his buyers.
“At the end of the day, customers can go anywhere to buy the other brands, but they choose to come to us because we have something unique to offer them,” he explains. “Our goal is to be complementary and not competitive.
“The opportunity for us to create more of a one-stop-shop experience online for our customers is quite appealing and a win-win. We have a careful selection of brands that we believe match our brand credentials, and so we can provide our existing customers with a better experience.
“We want customers to choose us as their first online destination for apparel, home and gifts.”
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However, it’s not just a great product fueling M&S’s fast-growing online business. Langford has worked hard operationally to make shopping online with M&S as easy as possible.
Stock availability has been a high priority. “We recognize that uptime is always a very emotional point for our customers, and we’ve been working hard to improve our online uptime,” says Langford.
“We have been looking at how we can give our customers access to more of the stock on the M&S network, so we have introduced in-store production. Online customers can now access stock not only at our e-commerce distribution center in Castle Donnington, but also at over 200 of our stores.
The retailer has also improved the speed, convenience and consistency of its delivery, including in-store.
“The collection experience in our stores needs to be faster and more convenient. The returns experience, whether in-store or by mail, needs to provide faster refunds to customers and be efficient without friction. These are the areas that we’ve really focused on,” he says.
However, M&S.com must be more than efficient. Langford also strived to make his on-site experience inspiring.
Langford says, “We wonder how we can recreate the shopping experience in our stores that customers love.”
Direct shopping is one way for Langford and co to do this. At the end of January, the retailer launched M&S live, a live streaming service where shoppers can watch experts present the retailer’s latest ranges and ask questions during a weekly live show.
Each episode is fully purchasable so customers can buy the products while they watch. The retailer said the move was “the latest example of M&S seizing new opportunities in retail to be more relevant, more often to customers.”
Langford explains, “Direct buying is an example of how we’re trying to find ways to inspire our customers more, reassure them about the products, better communicate the attributes and what we love about the product we finally try to try to sell.
Retain Pandemic Online Customer
All the initiatives Langford has invested in have clearly paid off as online sales have soared since the onset of covid.
M&S now has many customers who weren’t buying online before the pandemic and, reassuringly for Langford, as we begin to return to normality, they are still buying that way.
“Many of those customers returned to stores, but continued to shop on both channels,” he says.
Langford is focused on retaining these customers by making shopping as easy and convenient as possible across all of its channels.
“We’re looking at how we can ensure our collections are as seamless as the in-store checkout experience,” he says. “Going forward, we will pay close attention to technology investments to make it easier for our customers to move through our channels. »
By combining a growing list of exciting new brands with a simple and seamless shopping experience, M&S could finally – after a decade of trying – emerge as a multi-channel force to be reckoned with.
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