WHY HAS EVERYBODY got it in for Marks & Spencer? For months now, features about the famous store's tumbling sales and share price seem to have been coming out with the regularity of gale warnings, as though the business press were taking a vengeful delight in reporting the troubles of such a solid, respectable, reliable company. Monday's You and Yours on Radio 4 was the latest show to stick the boot in, with a lengthy segment in which a handful of M&S apostates were given £300 to take into the recently revamped emporium, and then delivered their verdict. It made depressing listening, and one's heart went out to the hapless executive who had to respond to the views of excustomers who had, one felt, missed the point. One of them even complained that only something called an "early English" apple was available to tempt the shopper, sitting lonely in a terrace dominated by foreign varieties of the fruit.
But as the company representative patiently explained, this was only the beginning of the apple season here — another month, and the shelf would be groaning under the weight of the domestic famous names, all of the highest quality.
But then, urban food-hall browsers have long since become alienated from such primitive concepts as an agricultural cycle. The criticism of M&S that comes up time after time is that it is not as exciting as its rivals. People want to walk into a department store and shout "Gosh! Look at all the colours!", like credit card-carrying hippies in the grip of some new drug. If the store doesn't spend a fortune twice a year on its interior design, or instruct its buyers to respond to every passing idiocy in fashion and fabric, it is held to be doing its customers a disservice. The word "arrogant" was repeatedly used to describe the M&S corporate attitude. What? You mean they just put out a sensible range of foods and tasteful, well-made, hard-wearing goods, and expect people to buy the stuff? Insufferable!
My ideal department store would have seen nothing more innovative than a spring clean since about 1900. It would have saved the money its competitors spent on needless frippery, and passed that saving on to me, either in lower prices or a better staff-tocustomer ratio. I want a shop that values quality over presentation, and not so long ago a majority of the British public would have agreed with me. No more. These days my fellow countrymen expect to be licked and gurgled at like babies, and entertained with a constant stream of pretty images to match the whirling turnover of their attention span. They will not give credit to a shop that doesn't sell goods that don't work or fall apart, but will exchange or refund without demur for customers who have simply changed their tiny minds overnight. Neither would it occur to them to spend 10 per cent more on an item, such as a pair of underpants, that will last four times as long as the alternative available in some psychedelic hell-hole across the street. I'm sorry, I'm not with these people.
Of course, M&S are in business and are obliged to respond to market trends, no matter how stupid. But there is a further subtext embedded in the chorus of disapproval which I find downright sinister, the charge that this company, as a household name and pillar of the British establishment, has failed to keep in tune with the times. In other words, it is not part of New Britain, it is not joining in the fun, it is the circumspect guest at the party who refuses to try the suspect home-made punch. Sorry to use so many metaphors in a single piece, but I'm cross. I'm off to M&S to do some shopping. I expect I'll see Peter Hitchens there.