Marks & Spencer holds huge sale after clothing piles up amid lockdown

Marks & Spencer has launched a huge half-price clothing sale as the high street shutdown leaves retailers with mountains of unsold spring and summer fashion.

The retailer has called the promotional blitz a “rainbow sale” and is handing 10% of takings to NHS charities. The sale promises shoppers discounts of at least 50% across the store. The womenswear offers include summer dresses reduced from £40 to £15 and half-price jumpsuits at £29.

The retailer has also confirmed its new clothing and homewares boss, Richard Price, will arrive in July. M&S poached Price, the head of Tesco’s F&F clothing and homeware label, last November but no start date had been confirmed. He has worked at M&S before, for seven years, but left in 2012 after becoming disillusioned with the retailer’s strategy at the time.

Price is returning to M&S as the pandemic sends shockwaves through the retail industry. High street retailers have been scrabbling to cancel stock orders for next season as the impact of the crisis points to weak demand for the rest of the year.

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

M&S has been trying to reinvent itself for nearly two decades but under the current chief executive, Steve Rowe, and its chairman, Archie Norman, the retailer is redesigning its fashion and food ranges to broaden its appeal and attract more young families – essentially the same demographic as F&F.

Rowe said Price was joining M&S at a crucial time: “I am confident that his leadership will accelerate the transformation of our clothing and home business and build on the improvements in product, value and availability over the past year.”

Price, who also ran the now defunct department store chain BHS for three years, is a more orthodox choice than his predecessor Jill McDonald, a former boss of Halfords and McDonald’s who had no fashion experience before joining M&S. She was sacked after bad buying decisions left the company with what Rowe said were the worst stock levels “I have ever seen in my life”.

M&S, which is due to report its annual results next week, has already scrapped its final dividend and told shareholders not to expect payouts in 2021 either as it battens down the hatches. The retailer said its clothing and homeware business had been “severely constrained during lockdown”.

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said the rainbow sale looked to be “quite a clever way of covering up the fact that M&S is having to sell a mountain of surplus clothing’”.

M&S is donating 10% of the purchase price, excluding VAT, of all rainbow sale items to NHS Charities Together. Shoppers can get online orders via a contactless home delivery service or from collection points in stores situated next to food halls. They will also be able pick up bargains in the retailer’s 290 shared clothing and food branches, which have kept sections of their fashion floors open to sell clothing essentials.

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