Marks & Spencer to open Early Learning Centre outlets in stores

Marks & Spencer is to put Early Learning Centre toy shops and Nobody’s Child fashion into some stores in a step-up of its strategy to sell external brands and increase its appeal to families.

The clothing, food and homewares retailer will open Early Learning Centre outlets, with activity tables for children as well as toys for sale, in 10 stores at the end of March, including at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, Longbridge in Birmingham, and Liverpool.

Neil Harrison, the director of brands at M&S, said the move was part of an effort to become “more relevant more often to families” in stores, after testing Early Learning Centre products on its website.

“We know a large proportion of our customers look to purchase kidswear and toys for family and friends. So, by bringing the Early Learning Centre brand – with fun and interactive experiences – to our stores, we’re able to give our 22 million customers more reasons to shop with us,” he said.

M&S first began selling external brands on its website a year ago but has been experimenting with selling brands in 15 stores, including Clarks children’s shoes and Seasalt clothing for women as part of attempts to revive clothing departments by broadening its appeal.

Alongside the arrival of the Early Learning Centre, M&S is bringing more clothing brands into stores, more than doubling the number that sell Seasalt to 20 and taking Nobody’s Child into nine stores.

The latest move will put at least one clothing or children’s toy brand into 27 UK stores. M&S has 284 clothing stores in total.

Jaeger, the upmarket womenswear brand that M&S bought out of administration last year, will also be offered at several international stores.

Richard Price, the managing director of M&S’s clothing & home division, said the brands could help bring in more shoppers and improve the perception of style at the retailer.

More than 35 brands are on sale via M&S’s website, including Sosandar, Smiggle and Jigsaw after a first experiment with Nobody’s Child in March last year.

Price said brands now represent 3.5% of M&S’s online sales, having been bought by 1.2 million shoppers, helping to revive the group’s clothing sales.

“Beyond the commercial benefits, we’re excited by the role brands can play in bringing customers into the M&S ecosystem, complementing our own-label product. Customers who buy brands not only on average spend double but return to purchase 10 days sooner.

“Through Brands at M&S we’re forming deeper relationships with our customers, getting to know them better, and, in turn, our 22 million customers are getting a richer and more seamless experience from M&S.”

Last week M&S announced that Stuart Machin, the boss of its food business, would succeed Steve Rowe as chief executive. Katie Bickerstaffe, who runs its clothing and home division, was named “co-CEO”, in an unusual leadership structure.

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