Marks and Spencer

Marks and Spencer is a major UK retail company and a feature of any self-respecting British High Street or shopping centre. Also known as M&S, or more colloquially ‘Marks and Sparks’, this British retail giant is famous for amongst other things, its underwear and prawn and mayonnaise sandwiches. With 701 UK stores and 360 flying the flag in another 40 countries, Marks and Spencer has become an international byword for UK quality and is a genuine British icon.

Despite being the first ever British retail outfit to post a pre-tax profit of over £1 billion, Marks and Spencer started life as a humble Northern England penny bazaar – the equivalent to today’s pound-shops. The company was founded in 1884 by Michael Marks, a Jewish immigrant from Poland and his cashier and bookkeeper Tom Spencer. Selling an array of cheap goods from their Leeds market stall, the pair went on to open a chain of identical stalls in other markets across the north of England.

By the 1920s Marks and Spencer had gone nationwide, and sold only British produced goods and food, something it did until 2002. It also produced its own brand – St Michael – egotistically named after the company founder, Michael Marks. The company’s reputation was enhanced by its generous returns policy whereby customers could return goods at any time after purchase provided a valid receipt could be shown. Clearly open to abuse, this policy has been altered and customers now have thirty-five days in which to return goods.

In 1964, with M&S underwear now a national favourite, the Marks family dynasty ended with the death or Michael Marks’ son, Simon. Thus began a period of change, not just in the hierarchy of retailer but also in the way it carried out its business. Daring for its day, the food department, then the exclusive domain of the middle classes, branched out into Asian food. As the merchandise took on a more foreign flavour so did Marks and Spencer’s outlook and ambitions when in 1975 it took the then unusual step of opening stores on mainland Europe.

But just as the Titanic’s size rendered it unable to avoid disaster, so the M&S retail behemoth ran into trouble at the turn of the century, as it failed to move with the times. Bathing in the glory of a £1.1 billion profit in 1998, Marks and Spencer ignored the fact that tastes were changing. By 2001, with turnover still roughly the same as its record-breaking year, Marks and Spencer posted pre-tax profits of around just ten percent of those hailed in 1998.

Since then new marketing initiatives pushing more fashionable merchandise have seen the line on the M&S profit graph again heading upwards. Marks and Spencer is once again a favourite with Christmas shoppers, with underwear, jumpers and Christmas hampers favourites with yuletide shoppers. With foreign goods also now available on shelves and a less blinkered corporate vision, Marks and Spencer has regained its place as a UK high street favourite with its overseas outlets also doing well. With nearly 140 years of trading under its belt, Marks and Spencer is a uniquely great British icon.

Great British hampers supplied by Marks and Spencer.