Adland inspires a brighter outlook for the high street
A view from Maisie McCabe

Adland inspires a brighter outlook for the high street

As is often the way on this sceptred isle, it was the weather's fault.

The unseasonably warm spell during November and December was blamed by both Marks & Spencer and Next in their Christmas trading updates, released last week. Next even went to the trouble of providing a handy chart (below) showing the direct correlation between the hotter temperatures and reduced sales. After eschewing above-the-line brand marketing in recent times, maybe Next needs to have a rethink. 

M&S, which has been overshadowed by Next for some years, released its disappointing general merchandise sales on the same day it announced Marc Bolland’s departure. Both parties insist that he resigned in the summer and had always planned to only stick around for five or six years. But the timing set tongues wagging. While food continues to perform strongly, M&S can’t seem to work the other stuff out.  

But not everyone is doing badly. Debenhams managed a close to 2 per cent rise in sales, ahead of analyst expectations. Of course, it is easier to grow on the back of a couple of harder years, but Debenhams seems to be doing something right. And, in among comments on Debenhams’ online store and supply chain, the outgoing chief executive, Michael Sharp, praised J Walter Thompson’s "imaginative and joined up marketing" campaign on Tuesday.

In the second Christmas period since hiring 18 Feet & Rising and returning to TV advertising, House of Fraser’s like-for-like sales rose 5.3 per cent, ahead of John Lewis. That a store the Daily Mail described in 2014 as "patronised by mothers-of-the-bride in search of fascinators and pastel suits" is now posting such strong annual growth is a remarkable turnaround. Again, the real sign of success is delivering every quarter over a number of years – but, still, it’s encouraging.

Jonathan Trimble, the chief executive of 18 Feet & Rising, modestly credits House of Fraser’s numbers to the retailer getting its in-store and digital experiences right. Yet House of Fraser’s "your Christmas, your rules" campaign appears to have resonated with an audience used to ads displaying a "perfect" Christmas. Only by committing to marketing in the longer term will House of Fraser find out how much mileage it can get  out of its new positioning.

Both Debenhams and House of Fraser avoided the temptation to try to be John Lewis. House of Fraser pitched for the cooler end of the high-street crowd, while Debenhams presented itself as the solid option for that difficult-to-buy present. The IPA’s Bellwether Report, out today, suggests that marketers are getting jumpy. Perhaps when the econometrics numbers come in, the two retailers might be used as examples to calm them down.