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IMRG Online Retailer Interview: Marks & Spencer

A Q&A with Roger Wright, Technical Packaging Lead, Clothing & Home, Marks & Spencer

We spoke to Roger about environmental packaging, cutting down on plastic, and Marks & Spencer's sustainability strategy, Plan A

In your own words, tell me about Marks & Spencer

From my point of view, it’s a great company to work for: when you aren’t working for M&S, you’re looking towards them to see what they’re doing, and trying to follow that. When I joined the company 7 years ago, I realised there was good reason for that.

More recently, we seem to have struggled in fashion in terms of our offering; it’s well documented that we’ve had 5 years of negative growth in fashion. However, we are trying to do the right thing, both from a product point of view and a sustainability point of view.

Plan A, our sustainability proposition, is still very much at the heart of what we do. We relaunched two years ago and all the things we put in there around sustainability are still true today. For example, we were trying to make packaging as widely recyclable as possible two years ago, before David Attenborough brought the war on plastic into the limelight through Blue Planet. It’s typical of M&S: we’re always on the right page, it just takes a long time to change because we’re such a big organisation.

As a digital business, we’re doing all the right things, but everything takes a long time. That’s my only criticism of M&S: the speed of change. The destination is the right destination, and, in general, I’m really happy to still be at M&S and doing what I’m doing.

Sunset on the ocean

What are your biggest challenges in 2019?

From a product perspective, it’s getting the right products to as many people as possible. We’ve done a lot of work in that area, and it seems to be paying dividends. While we reported a negative number on 10th January of -2% overall, the city are quite happy that we’ll hit our end-of-year target in March, which is going to be brought about by a much better spring/summer offer in stores from a clothing perspective.

Behind that, the online website that we’ve got is really motoring well. It’s really mature. We unveiled a new website 4 years ago and a new depot 5 years ago, both of which now seem to be driving a lot of sales. In fact, our online sales have really propped up our retail sales this Christmas and got us out of a bit of a hole.

Retail generally is so quiet: people are spending the same amount of money, but they’re spending it online rather than in the stores. And we were primed to take those sales because we’ve now got such a good shed and a good website. The biggest challenge from the product point of view is to continue that upward trend in terms of getting the right products to the right people.

From a packaging perspective, the two biggest challenges are around the materials that we use and becoming more sustainable than we are currently. And we’ve got a long way to go. I predict we’re going to be seeing a lot more noise around online packaging across the board: think about all the noise around coffee cups and plastic straws recently. That will quickly become focussed on ecommerce packaging: the bags and the boxes that everyone uses, and the void fill, and the empty spaces which are often in our packages. That will become our biggest challenge this year, I think.

Disposable coffee cup

Do you think environmental packaging is going to be a core message in retail as a whole this year?

It will for the big retailers, because none of the big retailers are doing anything innovative in that respect at the moment. I know they’re all trying, but there’s nothing really happening at scale. Whereas the little retailers and start-up businesses seem to be doing things a bit better than the big guys, but, of course, they can: they don’t have the overheads and worries that we’ve got.

Does M&S have a strategy in place to reduce packaging waste?

Luckily, we do! It’s been driven by the ‘David Attenborough effect’, if you can call it that. This time last year, when everyone was going a bit mental following Blue Planet, we sat down and realised our Plan A strategy was right, but we needed to accelerate it.

Very quickly we started to build a plan: we looked at every piece of packaging line-by-line to figure out where we could quickly remove or replace plastics or make them widely recyclable. The business as a whole will have saved over 1,000 tonnes of plastic this fiscal year (by the end of March). This is predominantly in food, because we use the most plastic in that area, but the whole business will have contributed to that headline number.

And the work continues: internally, in clothing and home, we’re trying to reach a significant reduction in plastic in year one, and then we’ll build on that and try to do the same again the next financial year, and so on. It’s effectively looking at every single product and re-evaluating what sort of packaging we’re using, both from a retail point of view and an online point of view.

It works for us as not only do we address our Plan A and the environmental sense people have, but we could also potentially save money for the business: we’d save money from using less packaging, but we can also see that coming down the tracks are quite a lot of punitive taxes on plastics which we would mitigate by reducing our plastic footprint. So, we can win in two ways if we do it well.

Plastic bottles

Do you get a lot of customer feedback on your delivery offering?

We get a hell of a lot of feedback. We’ve got 2 or 3 ways that customers can feed back, and what they mainly talk about is the timing of deliveries and what they think of the products once they’ve arrived – not necessarily the packaging. To give you an idea: roughly 95% of the feedback we get is about the product or the delivery service, 5% is about the packaging itself.

In regards to the packaging, they’ll only tell you when they’re not happy – never when they’re satisfied. Owing to that, all the comments are negative: they’re telling us we’re using too much plastic, or we sometimes leave a hanger on a garment, and then the customer doesn’t want it and can’t recycle it. And they also tell us that the parcels are too big, which I imagine is a common element of all e-tail.

Does the product dictate the packaging used?

In the context of .com, we plan every single piece of packaging on every single product, but we make it right for a retail environment, and that’s where we need to shift our strategy in the future. We need to make it fit for retail and .com, and that’s something which we’re not doing well enough at the moment.

For example, if you shift a fragile product in a piece of packaging that would survive .com, you wouldn’t need to repackage it when it arrives in our depot. At the moment, everything is given extra care and attention because things might get broken in transit between the depot and the customer’s house, or the store, where a lot of our customers end up going to collect goods. Historically, all packaging is developed for retail, which makes them less robust in getting from A to B.

Woman holding box

How do you intend to refine your packaging this year?

In the first instance, we’re trying to remove plastics if we can. It’s not going to be a like-for-like plastics into paper: we’re trying to reduce where we can rather than add something else instead. Where the innovation comes is in looking at the more end-to-end piece, which is only really in its infancy: from packaging the item at source (whether it be in China or Bangladesh, etc), all the way to the customer’s home.

We’ve never really done that before. It’s a very challenging thing to do because we’re pushing the cost to another part of the business. Margins are obviously very tight, so we need to figure out how to rob Peter to pay Paul when we up-spec packaging at source for it to survive an ecomm journey. Those conversations are now happening at a very senior level, so progress has been made in that area.

What practice exists when delivering large-ticket items?

Beds and furniture are the types of things you can’t pick up in store. We have what you call a ‘white-glove service’: we employ a different company to deliver these items to the customer’s home. They even remove the packaging and recycle it for the customer as well, if the customer wants it unwrapped before the delivery service leaves, which normally they do.

It’s an expensive way of delivering these items to customers, but we’re seen as being different in that respect: not a lot of retailers have that level of care and attention in delivery. There are opportunities for innovation in packaging in those areas, but it’s a completely separate market from our normal .com shed which sells the everyday stuff.

Bedroom

Is the packaging specified by you, or the outside company?

The packaging is specified by the product vendor, but under instruction from us in the business unit. We’re now re-evaluating all that packaging as well. For example, if you buy a sofa from us, you’ll find it’s delivered in a cardboard tray and a plastic bag. Although we take that packaging off and recycle it, what we’re now trying to do is put recycled content into the bag: we’re trying to incrementally improve it.

In the future, we could potentially use a reusable bag as well: with this white-glove service, the drivers could take the bag back to the vendor, which could be used to pack another sofa at another time. That’s what I would class as an innovation in this area.

Do any different challenges exist between packaging clothing and home items?

There are actually three areas: clothing, which is relatively easy to ship and pack and send on to customers, homeware, which is a lot more challenging because of all the various shapes and sizes of products you have in the home, even when you take away the large items like sofas and mattresses, and then you’ve got beauty.

We’ve got a small but quite successful beauty business which comes under the bracket of clothing and home, and obviously these small formats have to go through the parcel network, and that presents challenges as well.

Shirts in boxes

Do you take the possibility of a return into account before shipping the product?

The short answer is yes, but we don’t do a brilliant job of it. Nobody really does at the moment.

Some of the small start-ups are doing it more innovatively, but not in the case of the top 5 or 6 retailers. What we tend to do is make the packaging fit for one return journey, but you can’t guarantee it will make it: the customers may rip open the bag or destroy the box, and then it wouldn’t be able to be used again to get the garment back. But even then, that’s only two trips at the most: you can’t say that’s an innovative piece of packaging, but it’s how everybody else works at the moment.

However, our bags are designed with two tear-strips, so you can cleanly open and reseal them if you’re looking to send something back. And the same with the boxes: if you’re careful when you open it, you can easily reclose it to send something back. From that respect, we do make an effort.

You also have to bear in mind that 7 out of 10 products people buy with us are collected from store instead of delivered because it’s more convenient. What we’ve done in light of this is to put handles on as many things as possible, so a customer can then carry the thing they’ve collected down the high street instead of carrying it under their arm or putting it in a bag. It’s a very simple but very effective thing we did for our customers, and something we had very good feedback on.

Having said that, we still overpackage some of the larger items in boxes. We get customers complaining about that, asking how they can possibly hope to carry the boxes home on the bus. And then they get home and open the box, only to discover that the item could have been packaged in a smaller box.

Ribbon tying box

This is a much longer-burn refinement. A made-to-order box is where we should be heading. You could have an infinite number of combinations of items in a box, however we only have a limited number of box sizes we can choose from at the moment. It’s the way most retailers work.

In the future we could potentially have a machine which makes a bespoke box for any order, which would minimise the space inside. That’s a huge investment up-front for any retailer to install these machines in their depots where space is at a premium anyway. It does pay back, however. We’ve done some tests, and if you invest in these machines, it pays back within 5 years.

All this overlaps with the fast fashion debate: we’ve almost made it too easy for people to buy 6 dresses and return 5 if they don’t want them, or if they want to try all the different sizes, or even wear them out and then return them.

The whole fast fashion debate is now based on behaviours as much as it is on the packaging of the products, and it deserves a healthy debate. It’s like the debate around plastics: plastic itself isn’t evil, but what we do with it isn’t great. We chuck it away too readily; we use it too much. You’re shooting the messenger, effectively.

What we really need to do is look at our own behaviours when it comes to shopping. If we address that in a fast fashion sense, those problems around packaging would disappear overnight. There’s a long-distance selling law which allows a customer to change their mind within a certain amount of days and return anything they want, which isn’t quite the same when you go into a shop. Perhaps that’s something which needs to be looked at.

Eclectic clothing

Do you believe fast-fashion is sustainable?

In short, I do believe it’s sustainable, but the business models need to change. That’s the caveat. One way in which fast fashion can work is for the rental business to come to the fore, even for the likes of M&S.

Through this, people could rent fast fashion, return the items, and we’d repurpose them for another customer, either through washing them or purposing them for something else. I believe young people are more into that these days anyway: they want to be sustainable, and they realise they can’t keep filling their wardrobes with clothes they’re only going to wear once or twice.

I think fast fashion could be sustainable in the future if we adopt different business models about how we consume these things. If you can get over the fact that things would have to be cleaned in order for them to be fit for someone else, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

There are already businesses out there which are doing this, typically in high-end clothing. You wouldn’t do it on essentials like pants and socks and knickers and things like that, but you could definitely do it on occasion with dresses and things which you would only wear a few times.

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