M&S currently has 959 UK stores, of which 615 are food-only. It now plans to open a further 200 food-only stores and the online gambit is part of this refocusing of effort. You can already order some party food online from M&S on a click-and-collect basis, but this will be the first time a home delivery option has been made available.
M&S has a particular issue in that shoppers are prone to pop in to a food department and buy one or two evening meals, rather than doing a major weekly shop as they do at, for example, Tesco. That has meant that it’s never been deemed economically viable for the chain to offer a home delivery service as customers don’t tend to buy in bulk.
This isn’t going to be an automatic win for M&S, of course. The ‘high end’ online grocery market is pretty-well served by Ocado, while Amazon Fresh’s amibitions aren’t going to stop at commodity, repeat item ordering.
So it’s understandable that M&S wants to charactertise this move as a “soft trial” while it formulates its thinking. Chief executive Steve Rowe said:
The economics of food online are not straightforward and it is not something that we are going to rush into until we have substantial customer insight and a better understanding of what is right for M&S and right for our customers.
He's also being careful not to over-commit here, despite an increasing reliance by the retailer on its food business:
It has not cost us anything over the last five years by not being online with food. Our customers haven’t moved yet, but they will and we need to ensure that we are ready with the right response. There are unanswered questions over what this means for M&S and we have a team looking at this now with a view to undertaking a soft trial in the autumn.
Not before time. I’m perhaps an untypical M&S food customer in so far as I do tend to buy a week’s worth of items, although I do my ‘commodity’ shopping in the likes of Tesco or Aldi. That’s what will be interesting about this trail to my mind - can M&S persuade me to buy tomato ketcup and bin bags online with the higher end food items. I would never do so in-store, but will the convenience of home delivery make it more tempting for a one-stop shop?