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I'm not normally a big book reader, but over a recent weekend spent with The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer by London-based financial journalist Judi Bevan, I discovered a book too good to put down.

Why? Because it's one of those compelling reads about the intrigues of the retailing business that takes you behind the scenes and exposes the many and diverse elements that go into a successful retailing venture. In this case, you quickly come to grips with how Marks & Spencer, the 114-year-old British-based retailing icon (a purveyor of clothing, food, houseware and financial services), hit such tremendous heights but more recently stumbled so badly, falling on hard times in virtually the blink of an eye.

What makes the Marks & Spencer story so interesting to folks on this side of the pond are the parallels facing many a U.S.-based retailer.

As recently as spring 1998, 13 million shoppers a week were pouring into Marks & Spencer's 286 British stores, making it the undisputed leader of British fashion retailing and the second-most profitable retailer in the world (behind guess who — Wal-Mart). Its corporate culture was the role model for three Harvard Business School case studies. As late as summer 1998, it was raking in nearly $2 billion in annual profits.

Then something odd happened only a few months later in November 1998 — M&S' profits began sliding south. Shoppers were passing over M&S for new fashion-retailers like Next, Gap, Matalan and Asda. In other words, shopping at dear old M&S was no longer cool.

Old-line M&S management failed to give significant weight to these upstarts, preferring to rely on the reputation and branding so long associated with the Marks & Spencer name. M&S stores were turning decidedly shabby, while the company's management squabbles only deepened the public's distrust of the institution. This was a snowball growing larger and larger…

Today, some three years after the start of Marks & Spencer's decline, hope springs anew for a turnaround. After spending nearly all of 2000 conducting enough market research to choke the Thames River, M&S management still couldn't decide who was its core customer. Exit M&S' top management team and enter one 40-year-old head of UK retailing named Roger Holmes and the so-called “groovy grandpa of fashion” George Davies (and founder of Next). Together, they are remaking Marks & Spencer, but it is proving anything but an easy job.

In March 2001, Holmes said he would close all 38 European stores in France, Spain, Germany and Holland the retailer had opened in a $3 billion 1997 expansion push. Obviously the expansion was over.

On the real estate side, a sale-leaseback of its UK freehold raised about $2 billion, which it gave back to its disgruntled shareholders in hopes of pumping up its sagging stock price. The company also moved its stodgy old London headquarters from Baker Street to a swanky new development called Paddington Basin.

While questions still abound over a Marks & Spencer turnaround (profits dropped to a dismal $750 million from a high of almost $2 billion in 1998), those same questions can be applied to many a major American-based retailer.

We'll keep watching.

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