There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Bart’s shorts drop, exposing his underpants to the schoolyard bullies. Nelson, the ringleader, teases him, “who buys your underpants? Your mommy?” To which Bart replies, “well yeah, I’m only 10 years old.” When I was 10 years old my Mum bought my underwear too. And she always bought it from Marks & Spencer. At the time a visit to this establishment was, aside from school, the most boring way to spend an afternoon. It didn’t even have proper toys and games, everything was an in-house brand, St Michael. One always felt pity for anyone at school whose parents had made the most unfortunate choice of trainers for their offspring; those bearing this most uncool of brands. The teasing would be relentless.
And so it was that the brand of Marks & Spencer was drilled into children as the go-to place to buy clothing staples. When branded underwear hit the UK market it was reserved for special occasions, i.e. dates, whilst the rest of the week would see the comfort and familiarity of M&S undergarments.
But in the 1990s M&S started to change. I thought perhaps that it was just me becoming a more discerning customer but it seemed that its stuff fell apart quicker than it had done – it used to be I’d outgrow stuff before it would wear out at the knees, underpants included. The material felt flimsier. The build quality seemed poorer. I subsequently learnt that M&S had been driving to become the first £1 billion profit company in the UK by throwing out all the values that it had been built upon.
New bosses came and went. It seemed all they could bring to the table was the idea that marketing was the problem, not the that the product was the problem. “Bring in Twiggy,” eventually gave way to the genuine downmarket clarion call: “bring in Myleene Klass.”
As a family we finally gave up on M&S entirely after using their website to order a gift for a young relative. “That item is in stock, pay extra for a specific delivery date and time,” the website boasted. But the item didn’t arrive, ever. Subsequent enquiries led to us being informed that the item had been out of stock, our order was cancelled and that we had the good fortune to learn that the additional fee we had paid for a expedited delivery date was to be refunded. Well thank you, that’s very big of you for not charging for a service that wasn’t delivered. So now not only are the products pale imitations of what they were, the processes can’t determine whether an item is in stock or not, nor can it inform the customer in a timely fashion and the subsequent customer service is non-existent. You have to feel for anyone who started working at M&S 30 or 40 years ago and now has to take flack from customers for a firm that has been steadily run into the ground by a procession of overpaid underachievers.
There’s only so much trading on a reputation that a company can do. One by one, brands that we used to take in with our mothers’ milk are falling by the wayside. Is it just me or do most items in Boots (“The Chemist”) seem to be twice the price of anywhere else? Let’s not even mention the UK high street banks with their beggar-they-customer approach to staff commissions. There are similar stories in the US too, where the output of the once mighty car industry is a low-quality option reserved for the insanely patriotic or gullible.
Yes, companies do rise and fall, that’s the nature of markets but it’s another thing entirely when a customer can discern fundamental shifts in business strategy based solely on the quality of a pair of underpants.