Covid restrictions accelerate M&S clothing’s swing to online

December clothing and home sales fell by one-fifth amid brand's Christmas TV ad pause.

Holly Willoughby: fronted digital Christmas campaign
Holly Willoughby: fronted digital Christmas campaign

Marks & Spencer, which notably did not advertise its clothing and home business on TV this Christmas, has revealed the division’s sales lurched further away from in-store and towards online in the 13 weeks to 26 December.

In-store clothing and home sales declined by a massive 47% year on year due to many customers avoiding shops over coronavirus fears and the impact of regional restrictions introduced to reduce infections.

That decline was offset partially by strong online growth of 48% year on year but, in total, sales were down by a quarter.

M&S signalled it was putting its focus on online sales in clothing and home when it opted not to run TV activity for its traditional Christmas push, in favour of an online video campaign fronted by Holly Willoughby, as well as radio ads tailored to different regions.

The shift was underlined by M&S chief executive Steve Rowe on a media call this morning to discuss the trading update. Asked about the company’s plans to acquire further clothing brands in light of its move to buy Jaeger, Rowe stressed that his strategy was focused on enhancing the M&S online clothing offer by partnering brands that are “adjacent” in style and customer base.

“I’ve got no intention of turning us into a [physical] department store,” he said. “This is about finding [other] brands that make M&S the place to go for an online [clothing] shop.”

Rowe described clothing and home’s performance as “resilient” in the circumstances, but was more upbeat about the “robust” food division, which continued to grow last quarter.

Food, which did have a Christmas TV campaign behind it, turned in a like-for-like sales rise of 3%, with December up more than 4%. The campaign featured nine of the UK’s most prominent acting names voicing a series of ads in the brand’s classic “Not just food” style, alongside donations to a range of charities to the tune of £2m.