M&S changing rooms slammed: A small problem or a leadership priority for Rose?

February 6, 2007

A recent report has placed M&S changing rooms the worst of eight retailers examined. The way in which they are fixed may be an indicator of the company’s appetite for change.

A recent report by Retail Week on the state of the changing rooms at M&S, illustrates the dilemma for a corporate leader. Yet in the run up to Christmas, the improvement in the company’s appearance was attributed to around a $billion (£570 million) spend on changing rooms and fixtures.

The original report would have passed most web-based scanners looking for M&S stories. However, diligent reporters picked it up as a story of more general interest. The adverse publicity was continued in a radio broadcast yesterday (BBC five live).

According to The Mail,

Marks & Spencer was singled out for criticism for long queues, cattle market-like atmosphere and chaotic appearance. [Retail Week] said: “The cubicle was even worse, littered with used tissues, hangers and a carrier bag – hardly an incentive to stay and try on clothes. This was the worst experience by far.” Also getting one mark out of 10 was Dorothy Perkins in Oxford Street, whose fitting rooms were dubbed a “miserable experience”.

In our posts we have commented favorably on M&S and its leadership provided by Stuart Rose. Even its changing room problems can be explained (if not excused) as deriving from a company culture which offered unquestioning return of items of clothing to its customers. This was for years a world-of-mouth positive element in the company’s corporate reputation. It meant that many customers used their own bedrooms rather than become acquainted with changing rooms at M&S.

A defining incident?

However, the report seems to me to be a nice example of a defining incident for a corporate leader. Should he or she intervene, or leave what is an operational matter to operational executives? An initial statement to the press was left to Customer Services manager Jo Moran. What happens next? Will we see ‘proactive’ leadership from Mr. Rose, or will the company wait for the inevitable question to be posed in a future interview, or at one of those increasingly less cozy general meetings?
Thomas Carlyle noted that genius involves an infinite capacity for taking pains. Much the same might be said of leadership. But in practical terms that capacity has to be allied to judgement over which of the numerous challenges are relatively minor, and which will have longer term significance for a company.