Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators

Marks and Spencer have been a mainstay of British retail for more than 100 years, so it’s hard to imagine them as disruptive innovators – but it turns out they were innovative all over.

More immigration and innovation

Michael Marks (born in 1859 Slonim, then part of the Russian Empire) moved to the U.K. in 1882, and within a few years had a market stall in Leeds. He was successful, in part because of a pricing innovation: he called his shops Penny Bazaars (“Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny!”) and allowed customers to browse with no pressure to buy.

Eventually Marks began a partnership with Thomas Spencer, who brought additional capital and good connections with manufacturers, enabling them to source goods directly from their suppliers.

Peter Drucker picks up the story:

World War I had profoundly shaken their country’s class structure… [creating] masses of new buyers for good-quality, stylish, and inexpensive merchandise such as lingerie, blouses and stockings – Marks and Spencer’s first successful product categories.

Marks and Spencer then systematically set to work developing brand-new and unheard-of core competencies. Until then, the core competency of the merchant was the ability ot buy well. Marks and Spencer decuded that it was the merchant, rather than the manufacturer, who knew the customer. Therefore the merchant, not the manufacturer, should design the products, develop them, and find producers to make the goods to his design, specifications and costs. This new definition of the merchant took five to eight years to develop and make acceptable to traditional suppliers, who had always seen themselves as “manufacturers,’ not “subcontractors.”

Peter Drucker – The Daily Drucker

A different retail experience

S4RB continues:

[After the First World War] M&S continued to grow and innovate. The company displayed its products on trays in the store allowing customers to browse. This was different to most other retailers who kept the products on shelves behind the counter… In the early 1920 M&S started selling what is now their most famous product: underwear. Today one in three women wear an M&S bra.

The history of M&S: This is not just a store, it’s an M&S store since 1884 – Blog at S4RB.com

Other innovations

There’s much more to write about: no-limit cash-refunds with receipt; a staff welfare department; clothes and cafes designed to meet the requirements (or exploit a loophole in) of post-war rationing; a survey of women’s legs to improve underwear design; the invention of ‘cold-chain’ supply so that meat could be sold fresh instead of frozen; the introduction of ‘sell by’ dates to products; some of the earliest sales of Indian and Chinese ready meals – and the Chicken Kiev; increasing emphasis on sustainability and responsible sourcing for clothing.

Slowing down

Innovation seems to be have slowed down a bit at M&S in the 2000s, but with any luck they’ll return to the habit and continue to flourish into the future. After all – it’s where I buy my pants.

Read more at Marks in Time: A History of Marks and Spencer and S4RB.com

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