IT IS a British retail icon and one of Scotland’s best-loved stores, but even Marks and Spencer has had to move to re-invent much of its offering to move with the relentless evolution of the high street.

It has meant a transformation of the estate that has led to some closures and also openings – a new store opened its doors in Cumbernauld on Wednesday and another is expected in Edinburgh this year - but it is more about finding innovative ways to engage with loyal but discerning customers.

Elgin-born David Bates, with M&S for 25 years, says a familiar theme across the Scottish estate will be calling out produce and producers from Scotland, such as Stirling-based Scotbeef, its oldest supplier, and its strong ethical stance.

Provenance has always been a key tenet for M&S anyway - it says it is the only national retailer in the UK that can trace every piece of beef it sells, such as from a prepared meal, a sandwich or a cut, back to the farm and animal from which it is sourced.

INFOGRAPHIC: Marks and Spencer in Scotland

There is also a new push on scratch cooking with a range called Cook With M&S, which has 175 products and ingredients, with dressings and drizzles, such as whisky sauce, that can be mixed and matched with mains, with recipe inspiration also provided.

Mr Bates, 52, said: “Retail, as everybody would be noticing at the moment, is tough. It’s tough out there for everybody. No more or no less for M&S in Scotland.

“From a Marks & Spencer’s perspective, we are going through quite a major transformation, whether that’s from an operational perspective, through to products and through to stores.

“We’ve been celebrating 100 years in Scotland to the tail end of last year and the beginning of this year, and what we have done both from our products and from a store perspective has been well received.

“Certainly across the Scottish estate, we’re going to see some really good performance coming out, which is again really encouraging.

“I think when you look to our customer base in Scotland, that M&S has two million customers a week, employing around 7,000 people with a 100 shops, I think it just cements the icon that is M&S,” Mr Bates said.

Its shops are currently midway through a Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight showcase.

The M&S regional manager in Scotland said: “We are the only retailer to able to call out where every single cow came from, every single one of our steaks, with the Galloway family at the helm. Scotbeef are our oldest supplier, we’ve been with them since the 1930s. I think what’s outstanding is we are continuing to break new ground with them.

“We’re creating quite an event for the fortnight in our shops.”

READ MORE: Ice-cream maker wins M&S supply contract

He added: “ I think change in terms of our store estate has happened with real regularity throughout the last 25 years, but I think most recently, we’re seeing some fabulous partnerships being called out.”

Also, brands likes Mackie's, Tunnock’s, Irn-Bru and Tennents are also now available in M&S. “We’ve only just purchased Irn-Bru this year, so change is happening with regularity, but a lot of the change, the majority of change, has been positive.”

Personally, he hails Glasgow as well as London. “Running Marble Arch I guess would be the most notable role in my career path. But equally Glasgow Argyle Street was the store I started as a commercial manager and then when I went back as a store manager that was a real highlight for me.”

New and updated formats are being introduced, such as a changing room in the Oban store to try on items bought online, and a link-up with Ocado for deliveries, and being considered, such as the test concept at Hempstead Valley which operates as a supermarket “but with the soul of a fresh market”, which is just one of the pilot schemes mooted when executives speak of the “renewal” of the estate.

M&S buys around £300 million worth of goods from Scotland a year, and 2,500 of its products use Scottish raw materials. So far as well as Cumbernauld stores in Glenrothes, Oban, Bridge of Don and Fort William have been added to the number, with a total of 263 jobs so far and Comely Bank in Edinburgh to bring an as yet unspecified number of roles also.

M&S has around 1,045 outlets and among the 35 UK stores already closed or relocated were Falkirk, Greenock and Kirkcaldy. The overall estate is expected to remain around the same size when the transformation is complete.

Updating on the estate overhaul before the summer, M&S posted a 10 per cent drop in annual profits to £523m.

Mr Bates said: “Managing a store estate in totality is never easy. I think there’s always going to be challenges and I think with the customer base wanting different things, whether it is the Click & Collect, digital online business, whether it is fewer large stores on the high street, whether it’s more Simply Food stores, the format of our stores is changing at a speed that I’ve never seen.”

READ MORE: New M&S stores to open in Scotland this year

He added: “We’re a very robust business in Scotland, and an employer of choice.”

He acknowledges that many customers have a particular connection with M&S. “With that affinity, they have an expectation, and I think that’s our role as leaders in the business to make sure that we’re listening to what they’re expecting and asking for and trying to deliver it.”

He said: “We can often get exclusivity of product, and there’s many things that you can only get at M&S, but equally, something we’ve become much better at is offering products that customers expect to see, whether that’s our own brand product or something our customers have been asking for, like whisky sauce.

It was a result for the customer, he said. “We didn’t stock whisky sauce a couple years ago and now it is a core line across all of Scotland.”


Q What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

A A quiet town in Portugal called Salema, with my family. The time I spent visiting Woolworths in South Africa was brilliant from a business perspective. As well as appreciating the cultural differences and beautiful landscape. I learned that great people, great customer service and great products are valued across the globe.

Q When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

A A vet. I was outdoorsy and loved animals. My family in Elgin ran plant nurseries, a garden centre and florist business, so retail was my destiny!
Q What was your biggest break in business?

A My biggest break was being appointed to head up our 
flagship store - Marble Arch. I spent two years there. It was as challenging as it was exciting. There was never a dull day. That said, returning to run the Glasgow Argyle Street store was also fantastic as I began my career in there 1994.

Q What was your worst moment in business?
I was running the Marble Arch store during the 2012 Olympic Games. For the first couple of days people did not travel into Central London for fear of gridlock which resulted in two of the quietest days I had ever experienced in my career. My fears of weeks without customers were alleviated when normal, hectic, trade quickly returned.

Q Who do you most admire and why?
or his endless energy and tenacity around climate change and his ability to engage with everyone at every level, Lord 
David Attenborough tops my list.

Q What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald and listening to the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds back catalogue. Three 
Billboards, and also excited about seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.