Marks and Spencer in Ireland says it is ready for anything Brexit can throw at it

Pricewatch: M&S’s operation in the Republic turns 40 next month, and it could not have picked a worse time to celebrate an anniversary

 Marks & Spencer  has  reshaped Irish retail and  consumer habits since it first arrived. In the early days Irish people could not get enough of its chicken Kievs, while its Cornish pasties ent down a treat

Marks & Spencer has reshaped Irish retail and consumer habits since it first arrived. In the early days Irish people could not get enough of its chicken Kievs, while its Cornish pasties ent down a treat

 

Marks and Spencer has been refused permission to import delicatessen foods for sale at its Mary St department store in Dublin,” the short news report in The Irish Times reads.

It says the “company is understood to have been dissatisfied with the food materials it was offered by Irish suppliers, but was refused Government permission to import food from the UK”.

And then a M&S spokesman confirms that the deli will not be opening in the short term as it has been prohibited by European regulations from bringing the required food to Dublin.

Now before you drop everything and race off to your local M&S to stock up on fancy ready-meals, dips, plant-based mince knock-offs, high-end apples and Percy Pigs, we should tell you that the story appeared in this paper on December 8th, 1979, less than a month after the retailer took its first stumbling steps into the Irish retail space.

Yet its dim past could well become its dark future – or at least a part of it – if Boris, Jacob and their band of angry Breixteers have their way and some of the most dire no-deal predictions come to pass.

Marks & Spencer’s operation in the Republic turns 40 next month, and it could scarcely have picked a worse time to be celebrating a momentous anniversary. If a crash-out Brexit happens the quintessentially British retailer might see its Irish-bound trucks delayed at customs posts in Holyhead or blocked from entering the EU entirely just as it blows out the candles on its Tricolour-tinged chocolate caterpillar cake.

Yet with just weeks to go before the October 31st deadline, the head of M&S Ireland, Ken Scully, seems hopeful that his store will be ready for whatever the geopolitical world throws at it. Certainly he has been planning for long enough. He meets his Brexit readiness team at least twice a week, and says all the contingency plans are in place ,with extra stock set to be delivered to warehouses in the Republic ahead of the big day to ensure the shop can get over any initial upheaval.

He adds that the store’s “entire readiness programme has been designed to make sure the impact on the customer is as negligible as it can be. The plans that we have are focussed on minimising the impact on customers.”

But come what may, the weeks ahead will present big challenges for Marks & Spencer.

There is a broad acceptance that a no-deal will see some well known British-made brands disappear from the shelves of supermarkets here – at least in the short term – but in the wider retailer arena such products will be replaced by other similar ones.

Supply chain

Marks & Spencer is unique in that virtually everything it sells here is own-brand and much of it originates in the UK. That may make things harder for it but – on the other side of the ledger – at least it owns all the elements of its supply chain so it might also be better able to deal with the trade winds that blow.

Scully is optimistic the plans are in place, and happier looking back rather than forward.

“I’m really proud of the contribution that Marks & Spencer has made to society in Ireland,” he says as he talks about its big birthday. He points to the 2,000 or so people it employs here, and highlights the billions of euro it has spent in the local economy since it first opened its doors on Tuesday, November 13th, 1979.

“Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny,” was the slogan Michael Marks used when he opened his first bazaar in Leeds almost 100 years before then. His was a cheap concept, something that M&S in the 21st century could never claim to be. In fact, one of the most persistent criticisms of the retailer is that it is too expensive for many people.

Another criticism is the questionable exchange rates it employs between the Republic and the UK, with shoppers here often at a significant disadvantage to their counterparts across the Irish Sea.

Scully challenges the perception that M&S is an expensive place to shop.

“We continuously reduce our prices [and] we have got an ongoing programme to make ourselves more relevant to consumers. I think what we’ve done is we set the bar high in terms of quality and food innovation, and I believe others are following us. Likewise in terms of the service that we give to our customers.”

It has certainly reshaped Irish retail and Irish consumer habits since it first arrived. In the early days Irish people could not get enough of its chicken Kievs, while Cornish pasties also went down a treat, as did its Asti Spumante.

But it has set more trends that that. It was one of the first supermarkets in this part of the world to sell “avocado pears” in 1968 and they were so alien to shoppers that one customer tried to serve them as a dessert with custard.

Don’t tell the hipsters that or it will be on brunch menus all over the country before the end of the week.

Freezers

By the early 1970s, when home freezers were becoming cheaper and more commonplace, it introduced frozen food options such as lasagnes and pizzas, and rolled out exotic Chinese and Indian ready-meal ranges. It was the first major retailer on these islands to introduce sell-by dates as a guarantee of freshness.

As the 1970s became the 1980s a new food trend emerged in the shape of the microwave oven. Ready-meals became even more popular and it sold microwave cookery books by the truckload as people convinced themselves they could rustle up amazing dishes in a heartbeat using the new fangled technology.

Other trends which emerged in the 1980s were cooking sauces and calorie-counted ready-meals with health-conscious, leg warmer-wearing aerobics fans seeking out healthy ready-meals to keep them going as they danced in time to Jane Fonda.

The popularity of ready-made sandwiches grew as people stopped going home for their dinner in the middle of the day. Initially M&S on Mary St made fresh sandwiches in store each day, but the scale of demand made it impossible so it started to work with outside suppliers.

Fast forward to today and things are still changing.

There are vegan mince options and Asian meal kits and almond milk and barely a chicken Kiev to be found anywhere.

Scully describes the competition in Ireland as “fierce”. However, insists that M&S remains “the benchmark in terms of innovation in food” other retailers have been catching up, and he sees competitive threats from both high-end retailers and discounters.

“The market has changed no doubt about that,” he says, while expressing the hope that the store will be able to continue to move with the times and keep up with the interlopers who would only love to steal its crown.

Five tips to get the best out of M&S

1. The Dine -In For Two deal used to be an infrequent treat but has become everyday in recent weeks as M&S seeks to coax more people through its doors. By most measures it’s excellent value for money, and you can get a bottle of wine, a fresh chicken, some class of vegetable and a desert for €14. With the wine alone probably costing a tenner, it means you get the rest for a song.

2. Pricewatch is not a big fan of ready-meals, but we had to agree with Scully when he described the M&S Indian range as restaurant quality. The trick is to buy it when it is on special, and if you do you can handily feed two people for less than €20, which is less than your local takeaway.

3. It is not cheap but M&S fruit is excellent, and we have tried over and over and over again over many years to find a retailer that can match it in terms of quality. While it costs more – and sometimes a lot more – than what you might find in many other retailers, it is generally better and will certainly last a lot longer.

4. The wine range is not massive but it is good particularly if you buy when the 25 per cent discount for six bottles is on offer.

5. The M&S yellow labels are your friend. At a certain point every evening – between 5pm and 7pm – staff go through the store and heavily discount the ready-meals about to pass their use-by date. That is when the best bargains are to be found. Buy stuff you like and whack it in the freezer to eat at a later date when you couldn’t be bothered cooking for yourself.

Marks and Sparks in a line

Last week we took to Twitter with a simple question: If you had to sum up Marks & Spencer in a single sentence what would it be? Here are just some of the responses.

Love Dine in for €14 Lovely food but wrapped in too much plastic. Anne Henderson

Great staff, fantastic customer service and an all round great place to shop. Vivien Walsh

Prohibitively expensive cheese puffs and English breakfast victuals. Ferg McGrath

If I could only shop one place for life it would be it! Ciara Toner

Kind ladies who will go the ends of the earth to make sure you are wearing an appropriately fitting bra and maternity leave coffee mornings. Roisin Wallace

It’s also the only place in Ireland with a comparable selection of fruit and veg to what I could buy in any supermarket in Holland. Other supermarkets in Ireland have abysmal, rotting food which goes off within a day. Michelle Corry

Percy pigs and yellow stickers. Maria Shannon

Knickers, Percy Pigs and the meal deal. Alison Begas

Happiness is mom jeans & dine in for two for €14. Rita Larkin

Overpriced, very fattening, posh British food for people who think they’re eating healthy but won’t peel their own vegetables. Karen Gissane

Overpriced products for people who want to put up a façade of superiority. Daniel Murphy

Tasty nibbles and scarves for aul wans. Diarmuid Rochford

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