I do realise I am in danger of becoming a total bore on the subject of M&S, having grizzled about their various fashion issues for well over a year now. But with the latest results from the High Street giant revealing a further fall in the third quarter of 2.1 per cent on its general merchandise - clothing and homeware sales - I feel the need to suggest to Marc Bolland, the somewhat beleaguered chief executive, that a key issue now is all about timing and deliveries.
Having said that, I would be lying if I said I believed all was now totally fabulous with their fashion offering; there is still some way to go on quality (matching in-store merchandise to press samples, for example); losing that feeling of "C&A's Clockhouse in its its last, dying days" from some of the Limited Collection clothing and displays; and just rationalising their fashion floors to be less confusing to navigate. But generally, they are addressing the fashion issues and making huge strides in the right direction thanks to a team, led by Belinda Earl, that seems to have a real sense of where M&S needs to go to lure back their target demographic.
Forgive a slightly indulgent personal tale, but it graphically illustrates the issue for the chain relating to timing: that they are not making anywhere enough progress is in getting the right clothing into stores at the right point in the season and therefore ceding a huge advantage to their Spanish high street rivals, Zara.
Back in October, when autumn was properly starting after a sales-crushingly warm September, I had an urgent reason to top up my winter wardrobe with some gorgeous new season pieces (a photo-shoot for Woman magazine Style Special wearing my own clothes). I had a 24-hour window to find pieces that I would love and which would - had they been attributed to SoSensational.co.uk (sadly they weren't) - have been shoppable on our site, since M&S is one of the brands we are thrilled to work with.
So, for obvious reasons, the shopping had to be in the real world, not the virtual one. Late one Tuesday in early October I headed off to Westfield Stratford City with a shopping list. Included on the list were several items I had lusted after (a term I have emphatically not used for some time in the context of the chain's merchandise) from M&S. One of them was a brilliant black leather pencil skirt with bold, waist-to-hem zip. I spent the best part of an hour circling and recircling the vast fashion floor in my quest for this skirt - or indeed any other leather pencil skirt - in this beautiful but bafflingly confusing fashion floor. For all its niche groups of clothing and departments-within-departments it is like trying to navigate a desert, full of similarly hard-to-distinguish features. To say that, in the end I was - literally - ready to scream with frustration would be an understatement.
Two managers - male, attired in the kind of identical polyester suits that would have the chain's founders revolving in their graves - were unable to help. Standing nearby, however, was a somewhat more on-the-ball assistant, female, well-dressed and happy to try to help. She set off across the wasteland in search of a leather pencil skirt. Some 10 minutes later, she returned, looking apologetic. Clutching one, very short, flared PU skirt appropriate for an adolescent with Elle McPherson type legs, she announced that was the only "leather" skirt they had yet had in.
They were not expecting their delivery of leather skirts "until mid-November", she announced somewhat sheepishly. In Planet Fashion, this is like announcing that bikinis will be arriving in late August and ski-wear in June - alright for the handful of late bookers but utterly useless for the majority of woman-kind.
"Mid-November", I repeated, jaw practically hitting the dazzlingly polished floor. "But the season will be virtually over," I wailed Now is the time I need a leather skirt. I want to wear it with a blazer, or a tweed biker, because it perfect for now. It fits both the fashion needs of the wearer and the climate, now. But, no, mid-November would see the arrival of leather pencil skirts in store, she repeated embarrassed.
Why, Mr Bolland? Who, in your slick Paddington Basin HQ, signs off on mid-November deliveries for an autumn fashion must-have; one which M&S not only has the capability to do, with its high production standards and good quality leather, but which is precisely the kind of garment which your key demographic wants from you: a slick, on-trend style, which they can take to their wardrobe and their heart; they can wear it for work - in late September and early October, Mr Bolland - and for weekends, with opaques and flat ankle boots. And then later, when the party season arrives, they can team it with embellished blouses, jewels and a clutch and head to a party in it. But if you are spending around £200, you don't want your leather skirt just for Christmas, you want it for the whole season.
And if you can't buy it in late-September or October, you might as well wait until the sales, when you can pick it up at a snip. Or, more likely, head off to Zara, who will have it in stock when you want it.
Late deliveries are not a new problem for the chain. At a press preview, back in March 2012, when viewing a perfectly pretty "wedding season" collection of suits and coat-and-dresses outfits for the June weddings which are such a fixture on the spring and summer calendar, I enquired when the merchandise would be in store. "Late June or July," was the astonishing response.
A mere fashion hack, who was I to question the wisdom of selectors agreeing to such tardy delivery dates, but surely this flies in the face of every convention on purchasing patterns. Even if the invitation doesn't arrive until April or May, it is rare that the invitation is one's first indication of the actual event; we know when friends or family are getting married, and if it is in June, July or even August, we are likely to start the hunt for the perfect outfit when the new season's merchandise comes into the shops in March or April, maybe May, but surely no later than that for the traditional M&S customer, who has "being organised" stamped in her DNA.
Of course, late deliveries of wedding season wear and leather skirts could just be aberrations; perhaps all other merchandise comes into store exactly on time and I have merely seized on two completely untypical examples. But I somehow think not; the muddled thinking that allows some key merchandise to arrive many weeks, perhaps months, after the customer desires to buy it is just another battle ground in which M&S is losing out to on-the-ball Zara and most of the rest of the UK high street.
Get a grip, Mr Bolland, because even if your merchandise is perfect, if it isn't available when the consumer wants to consume it, you might just as well put it straight in the sales bins...